Employee Engagement

Avoiding the Safe Silence Leads to Energized Engagement

By Carol Brzozowski

Jan. 20, 2020

Employees who resist the urge to speak up in a workplace culture of so-called safe silence do so out of fear of saying something wrong or that their contributions are not valued, according to leadership expert Karin Hurt.

Meanwhile, morale sinks and employees keep their eyes open for better opportunities elsewhere, Hurt added.

For a business to survive in 2020 and beyond, it needs micro-innovators at every level or risks losing its talent, according to Hurt and David Dye, whose research concludes it’s critical for today’s businesses to shift their culture of conversation from “safe silence” to energized engagement in courageous cultures.

Hurt and Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, a Maryland-based leadership training and consulting firm and the authors of “Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results — Without Losing Your Soul.”

“Many millennials and members of Gen Z watched their parents struggle through layoffs and frustration during the economic downturn and they’re a bit more cynical about working for an employer,” Hurt said. “They’ve got role models that prove you can be a great entrepreneur at a young age and as digital natives, they don’t think twice about collaborating with people all over the globe to help them scale.”

The competition for talent combined with artificial intelligence featuring pervasive automation and technology means courageous cultures featuring social intelligence, creativity and capable response to unpredictable environments are more valuable than ever to differentiate a business’ products or services and to attract and retain talent, said Hurt.

Hurt and Dye’s research — conducted in collaboration with the University of Northern Colorado’s Social Research Lab — examined workplace psychological safety, courage and daily innovation from the telecom, health care, banking, engineering and nonprofit sectors.

Those who seek to free the best ideas from the prison of safe silence need to address the concerns of team members. They want to know if management really wants to hear what they have to say, if it is safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from management, if managers are humble enough to take feedback, and confident and competent enough to act upon it, said Hurt.

Employers should ask courageous questions focusing on a specific activity, behavior or outcome and listen without defensiveness, she said.

“Rather than ask, ‘How can we improve?’ ask ‘What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?’ You send the message that you are growing and want to improve, which in turn gives your team permission to grow and make it safe to share real feedback. When you say, ‘What is the greatest obstacle?’ you acknowledge there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it,” Hurt said.

Questions that unlock a team’s best ideas include:

  • What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
  • What do we do that really annoys our customers?
  • What is the greatest obstacle to productivity?
  • What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
  • What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
  • What are you most afraid of with this program/project/process?
  • What is the biggest source of conflict you’re having working with X department? How might we be contributing to the issue?
  • What’s sabotaging our success?

“How you respond to incomplete, off-base or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time,” Hurt said. “It’s worth the time investment to help your team know a good idea when they see one and to learn how to vet it for viability.”

She recommends the so-called IDEA strategy, which stands for Interesting; Doable; Engaging, Actions:

Interesting — “Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results in areas such as customer experience, employee retention and efficiency improve from this idea?”

Doable — “Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?”

Engaging — “Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?”

Actions — Techniques to foster micro-innovation at every level of business.

Carol Brzozowski is a Florida-based independent journalist. 

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