Getting members of your team to speak up


To see American management 20 years ago, visit a company in India today.  Like many other developing countries, India imitates American business. Yes, U.S. businesses have leaped forward in many ways. But we’ve also taken several steps back. Today in this country, we often avoid conflict by tiptoeing around issues and discouraging debate. In an effort to be sensitive to others, we’ve stopped speaking up.


My nephew’s wife, Netu, worked for a large financial firm in India. At her job in Delhi, she tells of real teamwork, dynamic and open communication and the debate of ideas — American ideals that two decades ago were more the norm than the exception in U.S. companies.


Netu recently relocated to the firm’s Phoenix office, and the difference in open communication between the two locations is quite apparent.  At the Arizona location, employees defuse issues and get reprimanded for unpopular ideas, while communication training does little to open dialogue.  In the Delhi location, team members confidently share unpopular ideas, and comments are not taken personally.


Not all U.S. businesses have become regressive in communication. But in general, we are in an era of avoidance.  We’re much more frightened to speak up than two decades ago.


Certainly, the scarcity of jobs, the fear of being sued by disgruntled employees and stricter financial accountability have added to this trend. And there is much we have learned about communication that we should keep.  But there’s one skill we need to adopt: separate facts from fiction.


If a stenographer followed us through our day, he or she would record the facts: what was said, what was done, by whom and when. But we humans don’t live in facts. We create meaning out of facts. “My boss didn’t smile at me today, I must be in trouble.”  When we stop assuming how others feel and start owning the interpretations we create, trust can be restored. And with trust, it’s safe to share the crazy idea or discuss the undiscussed. If we’re going to thrive we must speak up a lot more, and business leaders must model the commonly held value of open communication.


Some more ideas:

Recently, I worked with a team to combat its fear to communicate by developing  the following principles:


We won’t assume what we can’t con­firm.

We’ll give people the benefit of the doubt. We’ll not gossip or form an opinion until we can understand the intentions of the person involved.


We’ll be responsible for our interpretations.

In a con­flict we’ll share our interpretation on what was said or done. “You didn’t respond to my e-mail, and I created the interpretation that you thought my idea was dumb.”


Feedback and ideas are not seen or given as a personal attack.

All ideas and concerns are welcomed.