The following is an updated, expanded version of a June, 2009 post on Uncovering Hidden Elephants.
We know that people need to feel “safe” in order to speak from their hearts. Those elephant-in-the-room conversations just don’t happen enough in our workplace. Even more difficult are the times when you, as the leader, would like some feedback on your leadership.
How do you create safety for people to feel that they can (respectfully) speak their minds and feel as if they are (respectfully) heard? Some thoughts on what I’ve seen work:
Set your intention for making it safe: In your heart of hearts, you must truly feel that you want this conversation to occur.
Turn off “The Judge” and “The Justifier” You must be willing, as the leader, to abstain from judging or excusing or justifying what you hear.
Listen to what is being said: Really listen. Turn toward the speaker, open your ears and consider what is not being said. That way, you can ask questions, from a place of curiosity, about what hasn’t been put on the table.
Ask open-ended questions: In order to keep from shutting down a conversation, and to help it to go deeper, ask the kind of questions that don’t require “yes” or “no” answers.
Acknowledge what you hear: Building on the thoughts of others helps them to feel as if they’ve been heard. When someone provides their opinion, respond with “That’s a good thought, and (not “but”)……., rather than steering the conversation in a different direction before it’s played out.
Make sure everyone is heard and all things are said: If you are having this conversation in a group, ask those who haven’t added to the conversation if they would like to (and respect a “no” answer). If one on one or in a group, as the conversation winds down, ask if there is anything left unsaid.
Thank others for their candor and honesty: Do it more than once, in different ways. They want to know that you appreciate their courage in speaking up.
Use the best ideas you’ve heard: Take action and let people know that you are using their ideas. When you can’t, or won’t, let them know that too, as well as the reasons why you aren’t using them.
Assure that there are no consequences to the honesty: People won’t speak up if they think for a second that they’ll be penalized either by your immediate response (by expressing anger, or through immediate rejection of the idea) or later (in performance reviews, or by breaching the confidentiality of the conversation).
Set an example: You must show others, through your example, that you are courageous in speaking what needs to be said. Be careful because as a leader, your words will be amplified. Assure that your direct speech doesn’t do harm; use moderation but be clear in your thoughts.
What other things have worked for you to create safety? What things have you seen leaders do that prevent safe conversations at work?