Did you ever have an opinion about a work project that you thought would benefit the company, but decided to keep it to yourself because it differed from that of your superiors? Ever make a mistake and hide in fear of being fired? Did you ever think something happening at work was unethical, yet choose not to say anything because you feared the repercussions of being vocal?
These problems plague many offices in the United States. But how many employees actually speak up?
My advice to bosses, supervisors, and employers is that unless you specifically tell your employees that they should communicate (and loudly), many of these issues will remain unresolved.
You may be wasting the talent you’re paying dearly for because there’s no opportunity for employees to have their voices heard. Even worse, stifling your employees' ability to raise valid concerns can eventually drive them away from you and into the arms of a competitor.
Wanting to impress their boss (or simply keep their jobs), employees often erroneously believe their opinions, complaints, and concerns should be suppressed.
As the boss, you focus on the bottom line, minutiae, and putting out fires. However, unless you are a one-person, self-employed operation, your team and their viewpoints are critical to the business’s overall achievements.
A team of quietly upset employees is not in your best interest.
Having worked for almost three decades as both a boss and an employee, here are my three key suggestions for you to share with your team in order to improve communication and encourage your team to speak up.
1. Encourage Candor
Let employees know that you value their opinion. I was told early in my career, “I don’t want a ‘yes’ man. I hired you to hear your perspective. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what you really think.”
Those words enabled me to fully express myself. They also provided my employer with access to thoughts different than her own. I was empowered to challenge and present “outside the box” thinking resulting in tremendous economic gains for the company.
Creating an environment of honesty is most effective when introduced during the onboarding process. “Improving employee communication starts at hiring, not afterward,” says Jaren Nichols, COO of accounting solutions platform ZipBooks. “If you want your employees to speak up, you need to hire people who are honest, kind, and devoted.”
2. We’re Only Human
Tell your employees directly, “If you make a mistake, admit it, and say we will address the problem together.”
Hiding and/or lying creates havoc all around. While it seems obvious, unless you actually tell your employees that you want them to be totally up-front with you, they may not be so forthcoming.
Let your team know that you’re human, too. You understand that mistakes happen. When you make an error, be open about it so your staffers understand that you, too, are far from perfect. Your commitment to a culture of growth and honesty will show that you lead by example. This, in turn, will help to encourage and improve employee communication.
If you fail to open this door, your ability to rectify the problem may not be recognized.
Depending on the mistake, that mentality can be disastrous to your business’s success. Why leave it to chance? Employees feel safe and protected, knowing that you are available to help fix the problem instead of adding to it. This result is a win-win.
3. Put Ethics First
As a boss, you probably know the refrain: “If you see anything that you think is unethical, tell me.”
But we all know that our perceptions color our reality. In fact, some might say that perception is reality.
It is an incredible gift to your employees to let them know from the get-go that you are an honest employer with integrity. It's also important, whether you are a small business with no HR department or a large corporation, that you treat employees or contractors equally. If you make an exception for one, then it should be an exception for all.
If your employees perceive that something dishonorable is taking place, whether it’s something you said or did or their interpretation of a colleague’s action or inaction, you can promptly address and rectify these issues.
Allowing your staff the freedom to speak up, and welcoming the conversation, grants you access to the information you need.
How to Improve Employee Communication: The Bottom Line
There are too many situations in which employees have valuable ideas, make mistakes, or encounter unethical behavior, but fear the unknown consequences of disclosing them to their boss.
Set the tone for mutually beneficial working relationships by allowing for freedom of expression.
Doing so will inevitably promote growth, respect, and admiration — and benefit your company’s bottom line. Respect and confidence grow when your employees know that you have their backs and that you’re all working together to achieve the best results for the company.
Don’t assume that your employees know they can tell you things. In order for them to get these messages, you must communicate these instructions directly. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Bonus Tips for Employees: What’s the Best Way to Approach Your Boss?
Regardless of how open and forthcoming an employer is, the onus often rests on the employee to set up a meeting. Whether it’s to discuss workplace malfeasance or simply for a “check in,” there’s a right way (and a wrong way) to approach a supervisor. Here are some time-tested tips to improve your own communication as an employee.
1. Set the Agenda
If you plan to meet with your boss for more than 10 minutes, it’s advisable to send an email ahead of time and indicate what you intend to talk about with your supervisor.
“I encourage my team members to email me about what time and date they’d like to have the conversation,” says director of operations Dana Case of business solution site MyCorporation. “This allows me to set aside the proper amount of time, and find solutions for the problem at hand.”
2. Follow Precedent
If you can, ask around the workplace to see how your colleagues manage supervisory meetings. Their tips can provide you with a set of best practices to make your meeting successful.
3. Own Your Mistakes
If you intend to meet with your boss over an error you made, own up to it, but offer actionable steps you can take to prevent such a mistake in the future.
“If you’ve made the mistake, the first step is accepting responsibility, but then you need to understand why it happened,” says career development manager William Taylor of resume-building site MintResume. “Approach your manager with the mistake, why it happened, and what you think can be done to avoid it in the future and you’ll be respected,” Taylor adds.
4. Focus on Solutions
When you have a workplace issue, try to devise a solution yourself before approaching your supervisor. This way, when you run it by your boss, he or she will know you a creative problem-solver who is open to a collaborative conflict-resolution process.
5. Know the Facts
Whether you’re requesting a raise or suggesting a productive change in workflow, make sure you have the data to back it up. This will show that you’re not just asking out of nowhere and give your boss more reason to accommodate you.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.
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