5 Reasons Why Your Employees Might Fear ‘Speaking Up’

Matt’s eyes were wide as the blood drained from his face. He’d just found out that he’d made a poor decision, one that could cost him his reputation and maybe even his job as a senior executive at a thriving human services company.

He looked up at us and nearly shouted, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

The sad part was that it didn’t have to be like this. People in his company knew it wasn’t a good choice. He had access to all the feedback he needed to make a good decision, but he never heard it.

He was a victim of FOSU: fear of speaking up.

In fact, he created the culture. Matt was known for his temper, for mocking people who saw things differently than he did, and he only asked people for their opinion to validate what he was already thinking.

Unfortunately, Matt’s story isn’t unique. Many leaders create cultures where FOSU reigns. When people don’t speak up, problems are never solved, innovation stagnates, customers leave, and you can ultimately lose your business.

In our experience consulting and training thousands of business leaders around the world, we see many leadership mistakes that contribute to FOSU. Here are the five most common and how to avoid them.

1. Not asking for the truth.

It is shockingly common for us to uncover game-changing strategies from frontline employees. When we ask them why they hadn’t shared it, we frequently hear answers like, “No one asked,” or “I didn’t think anyone cared about it.”

This is the easiest and most powerful way to overcome FOSU: just ask.

Regularly encourage dialogue; have people teach you one thing you didn’t know or share a best practice. Become a person known for caring what’s really going on. Compare what you hear with what you see – does it align? If not, dig deeper and reinforce that you want to hear the truth. This takes time – people have to see that you really want to know.

2. Not saying thank you.

One of the most powerful FOSU-slaying leadership behaviors we’ve observed was from Anne, a healthcare executive, who would thank people for insightful criticism during decision-making.

As a leader, you get more of what you encourage and celebrate but less of what you criticize or ignore. When someone shares a hard truth, the best response to ensure that they continue to share is to thank them.

It may feel uncomfortable, but the employee had the courage, took the time and cared enough to share it with you. If you thank them for having those motivations, they’ll be more likely to develop them.

3. Not responding.

This is a very common contributor to FOSU. You ask for input, maybe through a survey and then never respond.

From the employee’s perspective, it’s worse than if you never asked at all. They took the time and energy to share something, but your lack of response tells them you don’t care.

When you ask for input, respond. Summarize what you heard, what you will do and why. Even if their ideas weren’t actionable, when you acknowledge that the ideas were heard and considered, you increase the likelihood of hearing more in the future.

4. Shooting the messenger.

One response that’s even worse than saying nothing is to shoot the messenger – to attack the bearer of bad news. This is a guaranteed way to create FOSU in your organization.

When someone has the heart and courage to address a difficult truth, even if you vehemently disagree, bite your lip. If you attack them, they won’t bring up another concern. When the messenger is mistaken or lacks understanding, it’s an opportunity to educate them.

5. Never looking in the mirror.

This was Matt’s problem. He continued to blame his people, his board and customer ignorance rather than look at his own behavior.

When FOSU reigns and you’re not getting the truth from people, it’s time to look in the mirror. You’re likely making one or more of the mistakes on this list.

If you’re a senior leader or business owner and are confident that you don’t make these mistakes, but you’re not getting the flow of information you need from the frontlines, take a look at your frontline leaders and middle managers. They may avoid looking bad in your eyes by creating their own FOSU cultures.

It may take time, but when you consistently ask for the truth, show gratitude for input, and respond to it, you will earn trust, gain credibility, and have the information you need to make the best decisions.

Edited by Sammi Caramela.

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