I Already Empowered My Team… Why Are They Still Not Talking?

09/07/2019 by Stanley Ang

In today’s generation, it is important for everyone to be able to speak-up and express themselves. Being able to provide their feedback and opinion may add value to discussions, such as strategy meetings, workshops/trainings, town halls, etc. With all these promotions on open communication, the sad truth is that there are still companies that retain the command and control style of management.   For companies that have transformed themselves to having open communication without judgement, it is a big step forward. But with some studies made in the past 5 years, these companies that promoted open communications still had a common problem, which brings us to the question: why are their employees still not talking even though they have empowered them in their work?

The two most common reason were: 1) Due to the history and past culture of the company; and 2) Employees didn’t feel they are being empowered even though the management kept on saying it.

In an interview I did for a plastic manufacturing company in 2015, one of the problems that the higher management was trying to solve was how to motivate their employees and lessen he attrition rate. They were opening their doors and welcoming employees to share their concerns. They wanted to understand issues and concerns directly from their people and hear it from them. But they weren’t getting what they expected. That was when their management gave me a ‘go’ signal to build a bond with their employees and get through them.

I started getting to know the employees – from the managers down to the factory workers. I went out to dinner with them, joined them in the factory and sometimes even when they extended in work hours. I became closer to them and vice versa, until such point that we were talking about our personal stuff. We had the chance to talk about the company, how they were doing and how they felt about it. That’s when I learned why these people were not bringing out what’s inside them. It was because of the past culture that the company had. Although the company have transformed and encouraged them to speak up, they still hesitated because they didn’t really feel that actual transformation. They were so accustomed to the past culture that it became difficult to change it. Take note that most of the employees in this company are veterans, meaning that they have been with the company for 15 years or more. The employees didn’t see any concrete actions from the Management to really promote empowerment.

I came back to the higher management and shared these feedbacks that I gathered. We came up with a strategy to really help the employees feel that the management was sincere and wanted the people to feel safe to speak up and feel motivated to go to work everyday.  I spent some time to coach the members of the higher management in order to let them realize that the employees will not feel the change just by promoting it in words or emails. Concrete actions need to be implemented. The management had an open mind and were open to try my suggestions. 

In the coming months, the company came up with activities, such as team building and open door conversations where employees at all levels were invited to eat and talk on whatever topics. The conversations ran from what they enjoyed doing, the current events, sports and teams that they follow, and on their aspirations. After around 2 years, the culture in that company really have changed. Issues are now being discussed openly, management were keen to listen on the ideas coming from their workers, and best of all – the attrition rate went down, because even the new employees felt good with the organization. It is now 4 years from that day that I interviewed their employees. Today, this organization is thriving, not just because their revenues are going up, but most importantly, they know that their people are happy, and productivity are at a high level.

In order for people to open up, they need to feel the psychological safety. Psychological safety is when members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other. Questions such as these come into their mind – “Can we take risks on this environment without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”

The safer members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes and take on new roles. They’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they rate as effective twice as by executives. 

Psychological safety exists when people feel their team is a place where they can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.

Perceptions of psychological safety are strongly related to learning behaviors, such as information sharing, asking for help and experimenting, as well as employee satisfaction.

Things that may help to cultivate psychological safety include support from colleagues and a clear understanding of job responsibilities.

As a Harvard organizational behavior scientist suggested, to measure the psychological safety in the work place, here are some questions to see how strongly the employees agree or disagree.

1.     If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?

2.     Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?

3.     Are people on this team sometimes reject others for being different?

4.     Is it safe to take a risk on this team?

5.     Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?

6.     Is there any one on this team that would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?

7.     On working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

For other companies that want to promote psychological safety within their organization, here are some of the ideas that they can experiment on. I used the word “experiment” because different companies may find different styles to be effective for them.

1.     Allow employees to speak up

By always being rigid, it limits the ground for communication. To eliminate the barriers, encourage open conversations and create feedback mechanisms.

2.     Earn and extend trust

Having trust is critical in every organization. But it is not enough to just acknowledge its criticality, you need to earn it, maintain it, and be an example to others.

3.     Welcome healthy conflict

Conflict may put interpersonal endeavors at risk, but we can create an environment that creates conditions for a healthy form of conflict. According to Henry Evans and Colm Foster, asking questions in a certain way “allows others to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their ideas. Doing so promotes healthy conflict, and others will not hesitate to bring you even those seemingly whacky ideas that prove to be invaluable.”

4.     Be open to curiosity

Nurturing a curiosity culture makes the company be involved in the journey, become more creative, have alignment in communication, and be more agile and adaptive to what’s happening whenever a problem arises.

5.     Treat them as they are

Set aside some time to understand the behavior of the people. Understand how they want to be treated, their style of communication, ask them what they prefer, etc. It may be easier to operate from your point of view, but you need to also know how to operate from the point of view of others. In that way, you will be able to show empathy. Interpersonal risks will be less risky if the people see that you are trying to understand them.

Stanley has more than 15 years working in the IT industry, with expertise and focus on Agile coaching and transformation, at the same time managing programs and project teams. During these years of experience, he has proven himself in guiding people and processes to deliver quality solutions. He focuses on the team dynamic and delivery to motivate the organization.
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