Woman having a crucial conversation with the manager

4 Tips to Help People at Every Level Speak Up

Crucial Learning research shows that across corporates, performance discussions are one-sided.

When it comes to sharing critical performance feedback, managers can speak up freely to their direct reports, but direct reports don’t dare to share feedback with their managers. And they have lots of it.

Researchers asked 1,335 employees to disclose their boss’ significant weakness—one that everyone knows and discusses covertly to each other, but not directly with their manager. Asking the question was like opening the flood gates on managers behaving badly. Eight out of 10 participants responded with a colourful “open secret” about their boss’ behaviour.

Top 5 Manager Weaknesses

The top five weaknesses bosses have but don’t know they have included the following, along with respondents’ real-life stories illustrating this misbehaviour:

1.  Overwhelmed and Inadequate

“He is stretched entirely too thin. Because of this, he delays decisions and doesn’t respond to needs. It would be great if the organisation (not him) would allow us more autonomy, but that is not the case, and getting his attention for decision making is very difficult. I worry about our ability to be nimble in an ever-changing environment.”

2. Poor Listener

“Our vehicles break down constantly, even after just returning from maintenance. Our boss frequently says we are not to speak poorly of our vendor, so we no longer discuss problems in front of her. Now, no one speaks of any issues to her since we are constantly told not to.”

3. Biased and Unfair

“My boss dominates over female team members. He will blatantly talk over women when trying to make his own point.”

4.  Distant and Disconnected

“The boss disappears all the time and no one ever knows where he is. He invents reasons to leave that involve the ‘business’ and everyone talks about this all the time. The running joke is ‘I need so-and-so and he’s probably not here—see you!’”

5. Disorganised and Forgetful

“The boss over-schedules appointments, cancels at the last minute, and shows up late. This behaviour leads to frustration and helplessness with staff. We wait for her to show up to a meeting, make excuses to others who actually attended, and often have to reschedule. Talent is wasted, and staff feel as if we are assistants just chasing after the boss’ calendar.”

Top 5 Reasons Employees Don’t Speak Up

Clearly, people have intense and pervasive frustrations with their boss, and yet they don’t feel safe or able to give their manager feedback. Instead of speaking up, they vent to each other. Essentially, everyone is aware of and annoyed by the boss’ shortcomings— everyone that is, except for the boss.

But why is feedback so one-sided? Here’s why. According to the study, the top five reasons people report for their office-wide silence of the boss’ bad behaviour run the gamut. Specifically, they say:

  • Speaking up would offend their manager.
  • Speaking up would cause their boss to retaliate.
  • They don’t know how to bring it up.
  • Speaking up would hurt their career.
  • The culture doesn’t support people who speak up.

5 pie charts describing the 5 reasons employees don’t speak up to their managers

Creating a Culture of 360º Dialogue

This pattern of silence highlights a detrimental dialogue and accountability crisis across all organisations. It’s important people understand that silence doesn’t actually equate to harmony and results but quite the opposite. Employees may think that by choosing to remain silent about their boss’ bad behaviour, they are taking the high road or being the bigger person. However, they fail to realise that what they don’t talk out, they will eventually act out. Likely, their silence is already taking a toll on engagement, satisfaction, performance, execution, etc.

4 Crucial Skills to Speak Up to Your Boss

The good news is, there are a handful of skills people can use to confront a misbehaving manager. These skills help people step up to accountability discussions while also preserving relationships and results.

  1. Work On You First, The Boss Second.

Get your emotions in check by looking for how you may be adding to the problem. It isn’t that the boss doesn’t have faults; it’s that most people tend to exaggerate their boss’s problems and ignore how they may be contributing.

  1. Hold The Right Conversation.

Most people think they are giving their boss feedback but fail to get to the real issue that concerns them. For example, if your fundamental concern is that your boss doesn’t respect you or that you don’t trust your boss – you have to find a way to discuss that issue without skirting around it.

  1. Start With Safety.

 It can be tough to tell your boss you don’t trust him or her. But it is completely possible to do so without rupturing the relationship if you can help your boss feel safe. People feel psychologically safe when they know you care about their interests and respect them. Start with: “I have a concern I’d like to discuss. It’s important to me, but it’s also something I think will help me work more effectively. May I discuss it with you?”

  1. Initiate the Conversation with Facts First.

 Don’t start with your harsh judgments or vague conclusions. For example, “I don’t trust you” or “You’re a control freak.” Instead, start with the facts. Strip out any judgmental or provocative language and be specific. For example, “After you told me you brought me up for a promotion in the HR meeting, two people at that meeting e-mailed me and asked me why I wasn’t recommended by you.”

 Build an Accountability Culture

The health of our teams, organisations, and communities can be measured by the quality and speed with which people speak up and engage in dialogue. The skills to achieve a culture of dialogue and accountability are taught in these award-winning Crucial Dimensions courses. Learn more about building a workplace culture where people feel safe to speak up to anyone, regardless of role or responsibility.

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