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  • Writer's pictureTony Richards

Leaders Must Encourage Others To Speak Up

Leadership requires a multitude of perspectives, because no leader knows everything. Smart leaders depend on company culture where feedback from the people they’re leading is openly offered. Even though the leader has the authority to make final decisions, their decision-making success rises with the input of valuable information from their team members. It’s impossible for leaders at the top to be aware of the details of every situation.

One of the most famous instances of leaders who spoke up, was during the formation of the United States of America. In the face of oppression and unjust treatment, this now renown group used all forms of available media to speak out against the suppression of their opinions. Some gave speeches, some wrote articles, and others sat on committees or volunteered to fight, all while facing the penalty of death for their words. In many ways, speaking up is the genesis of what has made America great.

Smart leaders depend on company culture where feedback from the people they’re leading is openly offered.

So why don’t more leaders speak up? In many cases, the reasons we don’t speak up are connected to the approval of others. It’s a basic human characteristic to want the respect and acceptance of those around us. At times, this causes us to shy away from the risk of making waves, even when we realize trying to maintain the status quo is ultimately a losing proposition. Unfortunately, many of our relationships are not strong enough to withstand a differing opinion. We tend to align ourselves only with those who think and believe as we do, in order to avoid conflict. As with our founding fathers, it takes courage and strength to break this constraint and say what we really think. It’s good for us, for others, and for our organization; however, the fear of retribution and loss can be more powerful than the beliefs, ideas, and opinions of the individual.

There is a down side to speaking up. Consider the movie character Jerry McGuire portrayed by Tom Cruise. Jerry McGuire is a sports agent who has a late night epiphany in his hotel room. In a bold move of courage, he decides to speak up concerning everything that’s wrong with the industry in which he operates. He writes several pages in a manifesto that he takes to the quick-copy shop and then distributes to the mailboxes of all who are attending the same conference. The next morning, fear hits Jerry with the realization of what he’s shared. He frantically calls the front desk to circumvent the distribution of his thoughts. The manifesto has already gone out. As he enters the lobby, he sees people reading his material and receives a resounding ovation. A bystander is heard exclaiming, “Finally, somebody said it!” The next week, Jerry is fired. He is free to pursue the beliefs he so proudly espoused and the rest of the movie is his journey living those beliefs.

It usually takes some time and confidence before people stop keeping quiet and start feeling safe enough to speak up. Most individuals are afraid of being criticized or looking stupid in front of others, especially in front of the main leader. The combination of the allure of acceptance and the fear of looking foolish is powerful. That’s why most take the comfortable approach of remaining silent, agreeing, and becoming a “yes person.”

As in all things, there must be balance. Organizations must enable people to speak up. They need systems that empower people to be candid about the issues the organization is facing. No organization can be exceptional without it. Leaders who make this process safe for people are laying the foundation for an open environment of communication that yields happier employees, a more collaborative culture, and stronger long-term growth. Most people will be fine if the decision goes the opposite way as long as they feel their ideas were heard and genuinely considered in the decision.

How to create a company culture that encourages feedback:

Be open and share all information

If you want your team to give you good feedback and ideas, you must be totally open and honest with them about the current situation, offering the disclosure of relevant data. Don’t make this situational; make this a regular habit on a consistent basis. If everyone gets the same information, they usually arrive at similar conclusions.

Don’t shoot down ideas quickly

Sometimes there is a tendency to disagree immediately with ideas we have tried before or we think are bad. Stop this now. Start believing every person’s thoughts and ideas are important. If you slap the dog’s nose at the dish each time, eventually they stop eating.

Always express heartfelt appreciation for all participation

Team members know the difference between fake and authentic. Make sure you recognize the difference in your behavior as well. If you can’t be authentic, don’t have the meeting or discussion that day. Your emotional temperature is a powerful catalyst for meetings and culture creation. Make sure you have a true handle on it. You need to show you value the feedback in a real and honest way.

After considering what you’ve read today, I ask you to set aside time to evaluate the areas in life that are most precious, and then begin to share your thoughts with those closest to you. Take baby steps at first, and then begin to expand your efforts. As you speak up, both you and those around you will be all the better for it. The change produced from this one practice is some of the most powerful and positive there is.

For more insights on company culture, sign up for the Monday Morning Coaching Memo.

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