Jennie Marshall | 20 May 2014
Have you ever held a meeting, only to find yourself doing all of the talking? Is your team hesitant to share their ideas, even when asked?
Unfortunately, this happens more frequently than we'd like to admit. In many organisations employees are afraid to speak up. They fear their ideas will be rejected or their careers will suffer negative consequences as a result of making a suggestion - especially if the idea ultimately doesn't work out.
How can you create an atmosphere where communication is encouraged? Here are four tips to help encourage communication and to get your employees to open up:
Let your employees talk first
If you want your employees to share their ideas, let them talk first. Give them the problem and ask them for their ideas for solving it. Rather than throw out an idea of your own and wait for replies, ask your employees what they think first.
If you say:
"We're a couple of days behind on our schedule and our partner is concerned. What can we do to guarantee we'll meet our deadline? I think we need to hire a few more people. Any other ideas?"
Your employees probably have a number of better ideas than just hiring more people. But unless you've created a culture where questioning ideas is encouraged, you just shut down the meeting by throwing out your idea first.
Instead, try something like this:
"We're a couple of days behind on our schedule and we need to catch up. You're the ones doing the work. I need you to tell me what we can do to get back on schedule."
An opening like this will encourage realistic suggestions from team members because they feel empowered to solve the problem . By the end of the meeting you will have a plan in place that everyone has given input to and agreed upon.
Be open minded
If someone shares an idea that's different from yours, how do you react? Do you defend your own ideas first? That's a sure way to shut down the flow of ideas. When someone says to you, "I think we should do this differently," do not reply with, "Why? What's wrong with the way we do it now?"
By offering these types of replies, you are creating an atmosphere of animosity. Ideas that are different than your own shouldn't be seen as an attack. If an employee is brave enough to share an idea for change, listen to them. This would be a great time to say "That's an interesting idea. Let's grab coffee tomorrow morning so you can tell me more about it."
Often it's new employees who enter an organisation with 'fresh eyes' who are quickly able to identify areas for improvement. They might even have solutions from their previous experience and are willing to take on a new challenge (that's why they took on the new position to begin with). However, since they just joined an established group, they haven't had a chance to build credibility, trust, and goodwill yet. Sometimes it's long standing employees who have the ideas, but don't feel they can voice them because the stakes are too high.
Set up a process where employees are strongly encouraged (and possibly even incentivised) to make suggestions. Be sure that all ideas are initially considered without first reviewing who submitted them.
I remember reading a story about IBM where they had a program like this. All employees were encouraged to submit suggestions for improvements. If the idea was implemented, the employee was given a small percentage of the money saved. One of the interns suggested that instead of using a courier service for the delivery of international documents, IBM should consider a new technology called 'email'. I don't remember the exact figure that he was given, but it was in the tens of thousands of dollars. So you can imagine how much money that one idea saved the company.
Use their ideas
Leaders need to not only hear ideas, but also implement them, and recognise the individual who contributed the idea. In fact, if possible, let that person take the lead or at least help execute the idea.
When an employee comes up with a great, useable proposal, why not help them make it successful? Allow that person to have input wherever possible, guide them, set them up with a mentor and a team. However, never place implementation solely on the shoulders of a person who doesn't have the necessary experience. Think of it as asking someone with a handsaw and a tree to build a house in one day. It would never happen! Instead, set them up for success.
Don't just say, "Great, make it happen!" unless that employee actually has the tools to do so. If you set your employee up for failure, not only will they not share any further ideas, but neither will their coworkers.
Here's the bottom line in encouraging communication in the team: if you want employees to share their ideas, you've got to let your employees talk first, you've got to be open-minded, and you've got to be encouraging.
If your employees voice ideas, or approach you of their own volition, never respond in a defensive manner. You've got to be prepared to really listen. If you find that an idea is a good one, take it seriously and help make sure it happens. Recognise the successes and don't punish the failures. If you follow these practices, you'll create a culture of openness and creativity within your company.
QA Learning Expert: Leadership, Management and Business Skills