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Do You Hear What People Aren't Saying


One of my favorite things to dig into with business leaders is the organization’s feedback loop. Specifically, what they are doing to ensure they have a pulse on their team members. Not just productivity, but buy-in, culture fit, emotional health, etc. Most immediately point to their performance reviews or one-on-one meetings. Everyone seems to love the 360-degree performance review these days. (For the record, if you’re an employee participating in a 360-degree performance review, be careful, most managers have fragile egos and can’t handle your constructive criticism. Your fears are legitimate.). Anonymous surveys are better, as long as there isn’t an undercover employee in IT telling the CEO who said what (I’ve seen this and I wish I was kidding). 

Maybe your feedback loop is fairly robust and you provide ample opportunity for your team to share their perspectives. You feel pretty good about where things are going and you’ve put together a fairly solid team. There is quite a bit of (mostly great) information out there about how integral active listening is to strong leadership. It seems simple, but it’s true. Good leaders are usually good listeners, even if they weren’t born naturally bent to bend an ear (looks in the mirror). Jedi level though? The best leaders I have ever seen have trained themselves to listen for what their people aren’t saying.

The truth is that even the most collegial work environments are wrought with fear. If you lead an organization with more than ten people then I would be willing to bet the farm that you have someone right now scared to share a great idea. A potentially game-changing idea. They are afraid that it will be squashed, hijacked, or ridiculed, so they are keeping quiet. I would also be willing to bet that there is someone in your organization right now who knows something about a co-worker that would get them fired. Yep. They have serious dirt and they aren’t going to tell you because they are afraid they will get a reputation as a gossip or tattletale. Even if the guilty team member is functionally robbing the company day in and day out with their dishonesty, sloth, or worse. Your secret keeper will keep quiet. There just simply isn’t enough personal upside. 

Great leaders listen to what their people aren’t saying. Here are three tips to bolster your feedback loop and look for the nuggets your people are afraid to share:

  1. Ask open-ended questions as often as possible. 

Yes or no responses make it too easy for team members to hold back what they really think. Don’t let people off the hook when they get uncomfortable. Press and dig for the truth. 

  1. Regularly and publicly challenge assumptions.

If your team members see you challenging your core business model with regularity it will embolden them to do the same. The world is changing, maybe faster than ever, and our businesses should change with it. 

  1. Kick the bad apples to the curb.

Dishonest and/or lazy people are bottlenecks for good ideas. They squash and stagnate those around them. Rotten layers eventually destroy organizations. Don’t tolerate bad behavior or culture violations. If you want your people to buy in to what you are building and step into what you expect from them you can’t hang onto jokers. It may be time for a good house cleaning. 

Maybe now more than ever we need to be dialed in to how our people are doing. With uncertainty that doesn’t look like it’ll fade anytime soon, many of our team members are carrying more anxiety, stress, and fear than normal. Regular check-ins are mission critical and developing an ear for what your people aren’t saying may be the next step in your leadership journey.