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3 Reasons People Don't Speak Up to Leaders

116 - covering mouth.pngCommunication is a two-way street. Both parties need to speak up if it's going to happen.

Leaders: That means you don't get to do all the talking.

If leaders were listening and asking for input more often, all kinds of problems could be avoided. People on the front line recognize problems long before they bubble up to managers and senior leaders.

Related: Increase Employee Engagement [Checklist]

As a result, leaders often ask "why didn't someone tell us sooner?"

It's a good question. Some leaders may not like the answer.

People don't tell you because you've signaled that you don't want to know. Or, perhaps, that you want to know... but you'll only accept the information from another source.

Here are three common reasons the folks on the frontline aren't offering input more often. They believe:

1.  I Don't Speak Up Because My Opinion Isn't Valued.

  • If you are verbally saying you value input, make sure your actions match your words. Are you truly open to diverse points of view?
  • If you aren't asking for opinions, it seems you don't want them. Most people have input but will wait for your invitation before offering it.
  • If you are abrupt or rushed when talking to others, if you are only tuned in for passing-by levels of conversation, it won't seem that you can be bothered with others' opinions.
  • If you spend more time justifying your own way than considering others' ways, then it will look like you don't really want input.
  • If you are dismissive in your tone or impatient with others, they'll assume you just can't be bothered with what they could offer.

2. Expressing My Opinion May Lead to Criticism, Ridicule or Retribution.

  •  If you want people to give you feedback, you have to be open to it. A negative reaction has a ripple effect because, as a leader, everyone is watching how you respond. As a leader, your responses are seen as much bigger than you may intend them to be. Everything you do is magnified by your position, so proceed with caution when reacting to others' input.
  • If you react defensively, you'll shut people down. It took courage to share with you, and your negative reaction tells everyone else that it's not worth the risk of sharing.
  • If you raise a cynical eyebrow, roll your eyes or use other negative body language then people will feel criticized and minimized. Keep a poker face until you hear and process the full feedback.
  • If you respond in any way that affirms the fear that "bad news killed the messenger" then you can be sure no more messengers will be forthcoming with you.

3. Why Bother? Nothing Happens When I Speak Up.

  • If you don't follow up when people bring their concerns to you, they'll eventually determine that you don't really care.
  • If you promise to follow up on problems surfaced, at least give people updates on the progress made or the obstacles encountered. When you don't, you erode your own credibility.
  • If you don't explain why you've gone a different direction than others suggested, they'll assume you made a mistake and -- worse yet -- you didn't take them seriously.

The amount of input you get from your team is directly correlated to what you deserve to get. If you want input, you need to seek it out and treasure it. Appreciate it when people share information with you. Validate their courage when they bring you critical feedback. Respect and dignify opinions even if you don't agree with them. Work hard to avoid a condescending attitude when someone says something dumb (after all, there was a time you didn't have all the answers either). Take the time to gather input, consider it and explain what you've done with it.

If you want people to speak up, genuinely encourage them to do so.

Make sure you don't have a blindspot when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions. 

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published August 2015 and has been recently updated.