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The main reasons employees don’t speak their mind at work

For many companies, it’s not leaders’ fear standing in the way of progress—it is thousands of small, missed opportunities when employees do not speak up and share their insights.

The main reasons employees don’t speak their mind at work
[Photo: 青 晨/Unsplash]
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In our research conducted in collaboration with the University of North Colorado Social Research lab, we found five reasons that people don’t speak up to contribute solutions, suggest micro-innovations, or advocate for customers.

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1. People don’t think leadership wants their ideas

Executives, managers, and employees described what happened when they approached their boss with a great idea and an executable plan to improve the business. In many cases, their boss agreed their concept would work and was doable, but then they were told to go back and do things “the old way.”

Forty-one percent of survey respondents said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67% said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.”

Why this matters: If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move.

2. No one asks

One significant reason employees say they don’t share what they think is that “no one asked.” An astonishing 49% of employees surveyed said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas.

We heard from many managers who acknowledged that frontline employee micro-innovations and customer service enhancements are vital for success, but they lack any regular way to ask for ideas.

Why this matters: You might think you’re asking for ideas because you have an open-door policy or your company has a sophisticated suggestion system. But that’s not enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute. Asking well requires a cadence of regularly asking for specific insights and ideas.

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3. They lack confidence to share

Forty percent of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. That’s not surprising considering how often managers (not just frontline employees) said they were told to keep their heads down and just do their work:

  • “I didn’t hire you to fix our company.”
  • “It’s not your job to think about that.”
  • “I didn’t ask you for your ideas.”
  • “The problem is that we have too many ideas. I don’t want any more.”

Why this matters: It’s far easier to default to safe silence, and people remember the stressful times more than the time they spoke up and their idea was heard. There are a wide range of reasons why employees lose confidence, from toxic management behaviors to insecurities they’re bringing with them from home.

You need to be deliberate in understanding what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing the humans on your team from contributing their best thinking.

4. They lack the skills to share effectively

In many cases, employees simply don’t know how to speak up in a way that can be heard. “In hindsight, I really hadn’t done all the research.” “I think I came into my new role a bit too gung-ho. I had so many ideas—I think they thought I was cocky and critical.”

Courageous Cultures, by David Dye and Karin Hurt

Interestingly, 45% said there’s currently no training available at their organization for problem-solving and critical thinking.

Why this matters:

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Even if you’re hiring experienced managers, chances are they haven’t been trained to think critically, solve complex problems, or encourage micro-innovation and problem-solving on their teams.

And these skills are not intuitive for most people.

If you want people to proactively identify and solve problems or find more innovative solutions, you’ve got to train them. If you want people to advocate for the customer, you need to give them the skills to know how to do that well from a balanced business perspective and give them parameters to help guide their decision- making.

5. People don’t think anything will happen, so they don’t bother

One of the most significant issues, even in some of the highest performing organizations, is that people are convinced their ideas will be ignored. We heard from many managers who echoed this financial services executive:

People bring up something once or twice. If it isn’t acknowledged then we’ll invariably come across an issue that’s been out there for a while. We’ll say “Oh my gosh, why didn’t we see this?” And we’ll hear back, “Oh, we did see it, but we told so-and-so and he didn’t do anything with it.”

Fifty percent of the employees we surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. And the number one reason people said they would keep a micro-innovation to themselves (56%) is concern that they would not get credit for their idea.

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Why this matters: You may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. And no one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued.

It’s human nature to stop trying and redirect energy where you believe it will do some good. Our research is filled with examples of smart, creative people, even at the executive level, who made deliberate decisions to stop bringing new ideas because they felt it was a waste of time.

What counts as courage?

In addition to our quantitative research, we’ve consistently asked executives, managers, and frontline employees in every Courageous Cultures program we deliver: What’s the most courageous act you ever did at work? We have asked this question of participants from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States. The answers are remarkably consistent:

  • “I stood up to my boss.”
  • “I managed out a poor performer.”
  • “I shared truthful information no one wanted to hear.”
  • “I defended a coworker against a bully.”
  • “I argued an unpopular point of view.”
  • “I walked away from a bad situation.”
  • “I advocated for my career.”
  • “I fired a customer.”
  • “I went back to school.”
  • “I took a new position.”

Most of these stories are not Courage with a capital C—the front-page news stories of whistle-blowing and confronting massive ethical breaches with career-threatening consequences. They are stories of courage with a lowercase c—choices to take a small uncomfortable risk for the good of the business, team, or customer.

When we ask, “How did this courageous act make you feel?” the answers are also consistent:

  • “Fantastic.”
  • “Relieved.”
  • “Strong.”
  • “Proud.”
  • “Stupid that I waited so long.”

Small acts of courage compound to build innovation, problem-solving, and superior customer experience at a massive level. That’s the power of a Courageous Culture.

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From Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Microinnovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates by Karin Hurt and David Dye. Copyright © 2020 by Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the Founders of Let’s Grow Leaders, a leadership training and consulting firm in Maryland, and the authors of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul as well as the soon-to-be-released Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Microinnovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates.