When you stop your people from speaking up

I remember the first time I heard that people in my team didn’t feel they could talk to me.

It was like a punch in the gut. I’d always considered myself open, approachable and easy to talk to.

The second time wasn’t much better either.

Then there was the third time.

Of course, those are the ones I know about. No doubt there are more.

Maybe these will stories will sound familiar to you. They highlight some key elements of understanding how we create a context where people can speak up, as a fundamental plank in building Psychological Safety.

Additionally, they tell a story of how Psychological Safety, and the opportunities to create it, may appear in different, sometimes subtle, guises. There’s not always a flashing neon sign reading ‘Psychological Safety opportunity!!!’ so we need to be open to see situations for what they might offer. Speaking up doesn’t just mean in meetings, but at any time.

I’ve noted a key lesson in each of the three situations. You’ll probably find others.

In reverse order then…

Cultural issues

The third event was a cultural issue. The staff felt they had to agree with me, not raise any problems, say they understood requests or instructions even if they didn’t, and avoid rocking the boat.

It wasn’t me, personally, per se. It was my gender, ethnicity and position and the way their culture responded to that combination. They would never tell me directly because they feared getting in trouble with me, just because I was the boss.

Nothing personal boss, just the way it is. That’s how it worked in their culture.

It took me a long time to understand the implicit cultural rules they worked to, which were separate from, and frequently more powerful than, many organisational systems we had.

You see, anyone who actually had a problem with anything, be it processes, people, stock levels, or almost anything, would tell Lisa, because she had that relationship with them all. She was everyone’s aunty. Some even called her that.

I then had to unravel where things went to from there.

Turns out that Lisa would tell Pauline who would tell Kate, who would tell Sara, who would typically fact check with the source and then tell me, if it needed my input.

They would never have described not feeling able to speak up as a lack of Psychological Safety. They were acting in a completely natural way for them. But there was no way they were going to tell me directly.

Going back the other way, some instructions were better coming from me, and some weren’t. In those cases, I’d ask Sara, knowing that Sara would get it to the right person through the right channels, because she knew the cultural dance better than me. It was her culture too, and she knew the interpersonal, power and sometimes family dynamics at play, and could pull the right levers, in a way I could never achieve.

Many of those dynamics and structures existed outside work, but were imported, fully intact, into our organisation. Unless you were part of the community, you didn’t know the structures.

Anne, for example, was senior to Fern in their community, but Fern was senior at work. However, the community structures trumped organisational structures and Fern would never be able to get Anne to do as she needed, regardless of how legitimate it was. She’d have to enlist Cindy to help, who would ask Fil, who would get Anne to do it because he was senior to Anne, socially.

She’d do it for Fil, but not Fern.

Everyone (except for an eternity, me) knew what the game was and what the rules were, and that’s the way it was.

Once I understood the rules better, we operated more effectively. My culture held no sway over theirs as I was significantly outnumbered. It helped me enormously that Sara was an outstanding cultural interpreter.

Lesson

Key lesson for me. Understanding the cultural influences in my team significantly altered how I behaved and managed. I learned to work with these influences rather than against them. Even though it was circuitous to me, we had a system where people had a voice and got heard.

Outcomes didn’t change, but the route to them did.

Leadership dynamics issues

The second time was different.

I was part of a small executive team, one of three direct reports to the CE. We got on well, worked effectively, and enjoyed each other’s company. My direct reports were capable and talented, but withheld information from me.

They were observant, articulate, diligent, did their jobs, filed their reports, and that was it.

But it turns out they thought the executive was too tight, too chummy, too close, and they felt there was no way to offer feedback or criticism.

Not that they wanted their executive to be squabbling or incapable of working together, but they thought we presented as so tightknit we were in each other’s pockets, would defend each other against any slight, and would refuse to acknowledge weaknesses, faults and such. Any negative information could even destabilise the executive team.

Fundamentally, they thought they wouldn’t be heard, including by me. They had no voice.

As the exec team, we were blindsided, because we thought our togetherness, unity and obviously good relationships were a great strength and demonstrated some of our core values.

But because of how we were perceived, we didn’t get totally genuine information or feedback on how our teams really felt, what the prevailing mood was like, what they thought of our strategic direction and some of our operational decisions, how they viewed our public profile, what our clients really thought, the real reasons people were leaving, and a host of other things.

We thought we knew. We didn’t really.

They had workarounds for some things, buried some things, and had alternate answers on other things. It was passive resistance.

For our part, we prided ourselves on our openness, and would never have sanctioned anyone for speaking up; it just wasn’t how any of us operated. We didn’t use the term Psychological Safety then, but would have been confident we had it nailed.

But they believed otherwise. True, we might not openly sanction them, but their views would be dismissed, minimised, ignored, and undervalued. To them, that perhaps reflected how they thought we thought about them. Good to have them, just not worth listening to.

They felt effectively sanctioned by being passively and covertly silenced. There was no point speaking up. Might as well say nothing.

Lesson

Key lesson for me. Merely saying I wanted feedback did little. I had to seek it, and create multiple channels and opportunities to receive it, and demonstrate from early on that it was welcome, valued, would get a hearing, get acted on if we decided to, and recognition would return to the giver in a way that suited them. Telling people they have a voice isn’t as effective as showing them how to use it.

When you’re the issue

This was difficult.

I was a third-tier manager with three direct reports and wider team of around 40. There were definite gaps in my management and leadership expertise, but I didn’t think being easy to talk to was one of them.

Actually, it was worse than that. I thought I was someone that people had no trouble talking to.

So when there was little feedback, or bad news, or critique, or suggestions, but a generally vanilla approach to most things, I saw this as a good sign, and evidence of absence.

Clearly, because I was so approachable, people would tell me things. Because they weren’t telling me things, there was obviously nothing to tell. I was doing a sublime job.

The reality was different.

Oof.

It was a rude shock when my manager told me that people didn’t feel comfortable talking to me. He didn’t particularly know why, but something I was doing was preventing people from coming to me.

They had nowhere to take their views, because they couldn’t take them to me, due to the laundry list of stuff I’d done.

There were complaints about one of my direct reports from her team, but the team didn’t feel they could raise them with me as her manager because they thought she and I were friends and I’d be biased and take her side.

I’d taken too long to address an issue with a different staff member. Others felt I valued her more highly than them because I was obviously prepared to tolerate some of her behaviour. If I wasn’t, then why hadn’t I done anything about it? That decreased trust.

I’d used technical language in a conversation which, apart from completely missing the point of the conversation, made me look arrogant and like I was showing off by using words the other person didn’t fully understand. I missed the boat, and they felt humiliated.

In another instance, I’d been listening to someone raise a concern, and told them I got what they meant. Then I proceeded to tell them what they meant and what it really meant and how I’d deal with it.

In reality, they were just getting warmed up with an innocuous entrée before getting to the mains. I closed it off thinking that was actually the issue, and they didn’t even get a chance to start the real meal, let alone get to dessert.

In every instance, I prevented people from giving me what I really needed to do my job better, as a manager and leader. Equally, I deluded myself into thinking that everything was peachy because there was no news.

I don’t think I convinced anyone except myself. But then, it suited me.

Lesson

Key lesson for me. I was easy to talk to, and people generally agreed with me about that. But my other behaviours didn’t necessarily support that, making it a little meaningless by itself. For them to feel safe enough to raise issues I had to be consistent and congruent with everything I did. It required an awful lot more than the ability to have a conversation. Letting them have a voice meant I had to reduce the noise I created, so I could hear them.

Wrap up

As a manager and leader, creating a context of Psychological Safety is easy to say, but more difficult to do. It’s full of nuance and subtlety, demands humility and vulnerability, and has numerous small moving parts, some of which are fragile.

A critical thing in ensuring people have a voice, can speak up, and be heard, is the leader’s willingness to put themselves on the line, and put in the effort to make it happen.

We need to pay attention to honing a number of small skills, and simultaneously develop awareness of the whole environment. We can’t assume we’re good to go, as I did. We can’t delegate it, and we have to learn, sometimes painfully, which behaviours help, and which hinder.

But it will make us better leaders, and it will make our organisations better for our people.

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