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How to get your team to speak up

4 min read


Trina, a leader in an IT department, asks during a staff meeting for a status update on a high-visibility project. There is a brief silence. Then Michael speaks up. “It’s behind schedule. I’m concerned that we’re not going to meet the beta test projections. What do you think?

Trina gives this some thought and counters with, “There’s got to be a way to get back on schedule. Let’s double-down and get it done. You’re a talented group; I have confidence you’ll find a way!” Trina then smiles encouragingly and says, “So, Michael, will your team hit that beta test mark?” “I’ll try,” replies Michael, very uncertain that the deadline will be met.

Trina thinks she’s providing encouragement and stretching her team. What’s she really doing is signaling to Michael that it’s not OK to push back. By offering an overly optimistic assessment of the situation Trina has backed Michael into a corner: saying “no” isn’t an option and saying “yes” violates Michael’s integrity. So he defaults to “I’ll try” — a non-answer which deflects responsibility. Lackluster compliance has taken the place of true commitment.

According to the website Silence Fails, failure of leadership to see the reality of a situation is an all-too-common phenomenon. The authors of the site conducted research that reveals “fact-free planning” by project sponsors is a major factor that leads to a project failure rate of 85%.

Reality-avoidance is the dark side to the pursuit of excellence. It’s ironic: when leaders drive for results at all costs, making it difficult for their people to point out unrealistic objectives, they actually get further away from achieving their objectives. There is a fine line between challenging a team to achieve beyond all expectations and living in a fantasy world. The only way a leader can discern the boundary between “all-out effort” and “this is total make-believe” is to create a culture where team members feel empowered to push back on their leaders’ demands.

As a leader, how easy is it for your team to say “no”? Here are five ways you can create the space for people to push back:

  1. Lose the pep talk. Motivational platitudes like “We need to apply both/and thinking” are useless. The only activity these phrases increase are people’s eye-rolling.
  2. Don’t mistake silence for agreement. When you ask for your team members’ commitment, look closely at their body language. Are they “open” to your request, making eye contact and sitting slightly forward, or are they “closed,” verbally hedging with phrases like “Maybe” or “I’ll do my best”?
  3. Show them it’s OK to say “No.” Start with your projects — what are you willing to stand up for and say “no” to? Modeling that you are willing to prioritize helps your team see that they can come forward and push back.
  4. Learn to ask prioritizing questions. Phrases like “What are we going to take off the list to make room for this new task?” and “Is there a different way we can approach this and still meet our objectives?” will go a long way to showing your team that you are not “out to lunch” when it comes to understanding their challenges.
  5. Ask for pushback. And then reward it. The best way to get people to open up is to ask for, and then neutrally listen to their pushback. If this is new behavior on your part, you may need to ask several times before people will step up. Be sure to sincerely thank the first person who ventures feedback, even if it’s misguided or poorly worded. You want to reward the act of speaking up. Later, you can work on coaching people to give constructive feedback.

“You can do it!” isn’t motivating and it’s not productive. Show your team that you live in the Land of Reality, not the Land of the Overly Optimistic, by encouraging a culture that’s that say it’s OK to speak up.

Jennifer V. Miller helps leaders leverage their influence in an ethical way. She is co-author of the Lead Change book “The Character-Based Leader,” available this summer. Visit her blog, The People Equation, for tips on increasing your IQ — Influence Quotient — and connect with her on Twitter @JenniferVMiller.