how to get your staff to be more honest with you

Part of the power of having a team is that you get the benefit of multiple perspectives and ideas. But to really take advantage of that benefit, you need your staff to be willing to speak up and tell you what they really think – even if it’s different from your opinion or if it might be an unpopular thing to say.

Managers often assume that team members will speak up if they have a concern, a better way to do something, or a differing viewpoint. In reality, though, it’s very, very common for employees not to voice their thoughts freely – even when they’re working for a manager who genuinely would welcome it. There are a few possible reasons for that: Some of your employees may have worked for managers in the past who didn’t welcome candor or dissenting opinions. Others might worry that if they disagree with you, it could lower their standing with you or with the rest of the team. Others might believe that ultimately their opinions won’t matter much and may have internalized beliefs like “you don’t disagree with the boss.”

Sometimes managers think that it’s sufficient to issue a general call for team members to share their thoughts (“my door is always open” or “I always welcome input on what we’re doing”). But that often isn’t enough to combat the sort of ingrained beliefs above. Instead, if you really want candor from your staff – and you should! – you’ll need to be deliberate about creating the dynamics that will encourage people to tell you what they really think.

Here are five things you can do to get your team to tell you what they really think.

1. Let other people offer their ideas or thoughts before you offer yours. If you’re the first to speak, others are less likely to share their own opinion it if differs. So make a point of giving others a chance to speak before you share your own thoughts. You can do that by simply hanging back and giving others the space to talk, or by specifically asking people to weigh in first (such as by going around the table at a meeting, with yourself last, or calling on people by name and asking for their thoughts).

2. Explicitly draw people out. Because it can be hard to speak truth to people in power, you may need to go out of your way to draw out employees’ opinions on thornier topics. Just asking “so what do you think about the X project?” might not be enough. You might get better results if you look for ways to make it easier for people to share their thoughts. For example, you can ask, “if this project ended up not succeeding as much as we’re hoping it will, why do you think that would be?” or “how do you think we could improve this?”

3. Don’t kill the messenger. Your staff will pay a lot of attention to how you respond when they come to you with a dissenting viewpoint. If you react defensively, shut them down, or seem to hold their viewpoint against you, they will quickly learn not to be as candid in the future. It only takes one or two negative reactions to end up signaling to people that they should be less forthright.

4. Make a point of being appreciative when people share dissenting viewpoints with you or deliver hard messages. Even if you disagree with the substance of what they’re saying, you want to reinforce the behavior itself. For example, it’s helpful to say things like:

  • “This was a great thing to flag for us to think through.”
  • “I really like that you’re thinking critically about this kind of thing.”
  • “Thank you for talking to me about this. I’m really glad to have a chance to talk with you about it.”

5. Demonstrate humility. People will be a lot more likely to tell you when they disagree with you or have an alternate take on something if they see you admitting mistakes, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and generally not acting as if you have all the answers. If you’re comfortable being a bit vulnerable, people are more likely to make themselves vulnerable in return.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. AthenaC*

    I like the tip about asking directly – many people have the impulse to be honest and you will get helpful thoughts that way that they would never volunteer.

    Also, lots of companies take time to develop soft skills in employees – I wonder how helpful it would be in certain environments to just have a short seminar on how to present dissenting ideas. If people have some practice in a training environment, it would hopefully make it easier to “go live” with this.

  2. Alienor*

    I know in my workplace, one of the biggest issues is “it won’t matter anyway.” You’re welcome to share your opinion all day long, but it won’t change a single thing and the senior management will do what they want, and in most cases, what they were already planning to do. Then they wonder why no one ever speaks up or disagrees with them – it’s not because we’re afraid, it’s because we don’t want to waste the energy arguing for nothing!

    1. JessaB*

      Yeh it doesn’t matter how nicely you listen or how much you ask people to speak up, if you never, ever do anything with it. If nobody on a team ever has a better idea than what’s already been thought up (if honestly and truly listened to,) that’s a bigger problem on the team than management refusing to listen. The team is not great at all then. A good team should at least sometimes come up with good ideas. And a good team will stop talking and find another place to work if management refuses to ever ACT on their ideas.

    2. B*

      This this and more of this. I can discuss things until I am blue in the face but if I know it is only going in one ear and directly out the other why should I waste my time or energy on it. Especially if it is about something to be fixed as that usually is code for “we say we want change but in reality there is going to be absolutely no change”. Much easier to keep my opinion to myself than be seen as the troublemaker.

      1. JaneB*

        Or in our place where we know that any changes will be chenaged again within a year or two – change is how ‘leaders’ get promoted, so everything getss continualluy changed.

        And WOE BETIDE anyone who points out that something has been tried before, or the reasons behind the changes made LAST time – that’s a Negative Attitude.

        Whine whine!

    3. TCO*

      Yep. Being honest requires some vulnerability. If there’s no reward for that, people won’t take the risk. They’ll just shut up and smile.

    4. Jennifer*

      Hahahah, we were supposed to have a business-wide day where every peon was supposed to give suggestions as to how to improve the business. My office didn’t do it, for exactly that reason. Like the room was DEAD SILENT when the topic was brought up because we know not to suggest anything.

      Really, if you actually want suggestions, you have to make it a safe space, and not a pointless space, to bring them up.

  3. JessaB*

    But I think the number one thing is that people need to feel safe speaking up. And that takes work on the part of the manager because I would not be surprised if everyone has had at least ONE job with someone who really didn’t want to listen. Also if you watch TV and other media there are a metric tonne of examples where people who do speak up are treated badly, and a lot of people think that’s how the real world works. Your compatriot Evil HR Lady just recently did a column on psychological safety and how important that is in team building, so it seems to be a big topic right now.

    1. The Alias Gloria is Living Under, A.A., B.S.*

      Yes, agreed. Usually you don’t know if you can trust your manager with being truly honest until it’s too late.

  4. Dust Bunny*

    1) Consider your reactions. I had a boss, years ago, to whom nobody ever complained about anything because he couldn’t be trusted to react in a reasonable fashion. He’d yell, or fire somebody (and then forget and call them the next day to ask if they were out sick), or create some ridiculous and unwieldy system to micromanage the issue, or some other thing. So we just gritted our teeth and either lived with the rules as they were or skirted them when he wasn’t around.

    2) Respond. Employees won’t contribute if they don’t think anyone will listen. At the very least, have a good explanation why the solutions they would like to see cannot be implemented. “It’s policy” or whatever, is the adult equivalent of “because I said so”, and that is a straight shot to employee resentment. If there are safety or legal concerns that might not be obvious to lower-level employees, say so, so they don’t feel as though they’re being stonewalled. If they don’t understand the reasons behind a seemingly nonsensical or obstructive policy, it will seem as though management is lazy or arbitrary.

  5. Len Brobot*

    I agree with the comments above. It’s disheartening to tell management honest things about the workplace culture or give new ideas for efficiency when they go in one ear out the other. I was recently told very explicitly that my honesty with management needed more tact (which is possible) and that calling out workplace sexism or unprofessionalism would get me fired in any other organization. To which I was floored, because not only did I make the environment safer for everyone in the office, this was coming from my manager that was the one supporting me through the tough parts of the ordeal. This goes without saying, I put in my notice after that conversation (and so did four other colleagues!).

    1. nofelix*

      “calling out workplace sexism or unprofessionalism would get me fired in any other organization.” – always surprising when bosses are so familiar with how other businesses would treat you worse.

      1. Blurgle*

        Whenever I heard that I interpreted it as “this is what I’d like to do if I had the power”.

  6. Bob*

    I think it is important for managers to know we are always watching them. When an employee presents a dissenting opinion or criticizes a new policy, we are quietly watching for your reaction. If you make a snarky comment or visibly get mad/frustrated/etc, we make a mental note to not share information with you. And heaven help you if you flip out when somebody resigns. You will never be warned when we leave.

    We had a new CIO recently start and when he asked for comments about IT, some employees were a little too honest. He immediately smiled and said (to the group) “that stuff is exactly what I’m looking for!” One employee clearly crossed the line with a comment and even then, he just brushed it off and moved on. Now that is someone I truly believe wants to hear the truth. But the previous CIO punished employees for speaking their mind so it will be a slow turnaround.

  7. Chickaletta*

    A little humility goes a long way. A manger who’s sincerely interested in learning from others and openly admits that they’re not perfect will get honest feedback much more than the manger who thinks their God’s gift to the organization.

  8. Argh!*

    The way one of my bosses reacted to my ideas gave me a pretty clear impression of how she’d react to my reaction to her ideas – shoot it down, nitpick it, or pretend to be interested but then never follow up on it.

  9. Anonymous Educator*

    I think these are all good tips. It’s also important to note that there’s only so much employees can be honest when their livelihood depends on your opinion of them. So you may be able to get them up to 98% honesty or even 99% honesty if you’re really good, but I don’t think a manager can get employees up to 100% honesty.

    1. SevenSixOne*

      Absolutely. Even if you can create a culture where everything your employees tell you is true, they still won’t always tell you the WHOLE truth… because they know they can’t!

    2. stevenz*

      Correct. In many cases, one’s boss is the most powerful person in your life so it’s natural to be cautious. What needs to change is the culture of the workplace. The trend has been toward devaluing individual contribution in favor of “the team”. That’s all very nice but the really innovative or creative ideas tend to come from individuals, whereas teams flatten them to make them acceptable to all the team members and to have a better chance of selling them to management. So this issue is laid directly at the door of management. The people are there to respond, but right now there is no upside to it.

  10. Megs*

    I just noticed the change to the rss feed – I understand if you want us few and lonely rss folks to click through to read, but if you have any control of the “blurb” is it possible for it to indicate which articles are links to other articles, such as this one? I love love love the blog, but the style of the external columns isn’t my jam (sorry!).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just an experiment, but I didn’t like it either. When the feed refreshes with the next post, it should revert back to how it was before.

      1. Megs*

        Hurray! I’m never mad when a website moves to the truncated feed but it does make me a little sad. I can’t imagine there are many of us RSS readers left in this post-Facebook world.

          1. Megs*

            I definitely try to click through regularly (it helps that the comment section here is the boss) but I do a lot of skimming on the reader (I use feedly but still miss google reader) and the blurbs can sometimes be pretty unhelpful. I’ve even dropped sites for really misleading blurbs, though that’s generally a symptom of a broader issue. Oddly, now that I’m thinking of it, it seems like a lot of the sites I read with great comment sections also don’t truncate.

  11. stevenz*

    I don’t think it’s enough to say “thanks for your views etc.” It’s far better to actually discuss the person’s comment and put it in the context of the decision to be made. Mangers *always* know more of what’s going on in higher ranks than their staff does and it would help if they were clued in on some of those facts.

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