How to Create a Free Flow of Information Between Leaders and Employees

By: Alida Zweidler-McKay

Once in a while I watch Undercover Boss — a show about CEOs posing as new hires in their own company to see what really goes on — and I’m always bothered by how unaware the CEOs are about what’s happening on the front lines.

I’m not especially surprised. This is a common problem in organizations. Despite leaders’ best intentions, it can be difficult for employees to speak up. The result is that, too often, valuable information brewing in the trenches fails to reach decision-makers at the top.

[Related: Bosses That Talk About Meritocracy May Not be Walking the Walk]

Amy C. Edmondson and James R. Detert address the communication flow (or lack thereof) between employees and their superiors in a study of 200 employees. They found that even with policies and mechanisms in place for raising concerns, fears about the potential personal impact of speaking up kept employees quiet. More importantly, employees were not only reluctant to raise grievances and concerns, but also to share ideas they had that could help the company improve.

“In our interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain. So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet. Their frequent conclusion seemed to be, ‘When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.’”

— Edmondson A. C. and Detert, J.R. (May 2007) “Why Employees are Afraid to Speak Up.” Harvard Business Review.

For leaders, the risk is clear. There is a powerful dynamic at play that can keep employees from sharing ideas with you simply by virtue of your role and what they make that mean — and not based on anything you’re actually doing or not doing.

That creates a block in the flow of valuable information. Employees often have the inside track on what works and doesn’t, what customers are dealing with, and even what improvements are needed most — and leaders need those insights to make good decisions.

To offset this problem and avoid missing important opportunities for growth and innovation, takes a very deliberate effort to encourage — even require — information sharing. It also takes a conscious effort to create a culture where employees feel safe enough to voice their opinions.

The good news is, you don’t have to go undercover to talk to your front line employees. Here are some ideas to help you create a culture of free-flowing information:

Be present

Have real conversations

[Related: How to be a Better Communicator]

Reward information

Facilitate the flow of information

Explore when decisions are delegated up to you

The result is a culture of employees who feel connected and valued, and leaders who are in tune with the decision-driving insights they can only get from the front lines.

Key Take Away: Employees often have the inside track on what works and doesn’t, what customers are dealing with, and even what improvements are needed most — and leaders need those insights to make good decisions.

This article previously appeared on Better Life at Work.

Alida Zweidler-McKay is the President of ZMCoach, where she works with business owners and leaders to build teams that are creative, productive and fun. Through one-on-one coaching, team coaching and workshops, Alida helps leaders and their teams delegate with ease, communicate effectively and hold each other accountable with grace. For more information, visit betterlifeatwork.com.

Originally published at www.ellevatenetwork.com.

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