Recent weeks have provided debate about a nation filled with fear versus a nation filled with optimism and hope.  If we look, we might see the same in organizations—businesses, teams, not-for-profits, workplaces of all kinds. Fear does not need to drive organizations Imagine organizations and teams where fears are acknowledged, addressed, and room is made for us to move forward with less fear and more speaking up. Imagine the competitive advantage of a more fully informed, engaged, and forthcoming organization around performance, strategic direction, projects, problems, solutions, innovation, and opportunities. These imagined scenarios are highly achievable. It starts with the leader.Leaders own the responsibility for making is safe Business leader Adam Roozen explains,  “As a leader, it is your responsibility to remove fear from your workplace. Firstly, you need to accept that fear exists. Once you’ve accepted its existence, you can begin to mitigate it.” Accepting means acknowledging the presence of fear and knowing by your very role you probably factor into others’ fears.  Since leaders are the formal voice of authority, they also need to be aware of the chilling effect they might have on a conversation.  Our experience is that most leaders believe their employees feel comfortable speaking up, that they’re approachable and have a very open relationship. We all want that too, but it’s common for employees to hold back out of established anxieties and fears. Even leaders who are respected, admired, and well-liked often cast an unintentional hesitation to speak up among people at lower levels in the organization or those with less experience.Continuously ask for feedbackAs obvious as it may seem, one of the most powerful means of creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up is for leaders to ask for feedback directed toward themselves. Continuously asking “What feedback do you have for me?” shows openness—that leaders don’t have all the answers, that leaders are open to blind spots, and that you model receiving feedback. Imagine the impact of regularly and genuinely being asked for feedback by your leader.Invite, welcome, and honor people to state their concerns If we wait for people to speak up voluntarily, we might hear from a small percentage of those more vocal, confident, or experienced. But our organizations still have many talented, intelligent, capable people people who will speak up more honestly, readily and respectfully when asked. Questions like the following will show an open side of you and your leadership: 

  1. What is your reaction to the ABC decision I made?
  2. What is your response to the XYZ information I provided?
  3. Pretend you are getting this information for the first time. What questions would you have for me? Let’s take the role of the (customer, auditor, regulator, board member) here for a few minutes.  How would they react to this idea?
  4. What is the burning question I might be missing or might not be addressing?
  5. Before we go on, help me to make sure I’m seeing this situation the way you see it (others see it).

Be less certain more oftenLeaders often end up speaking up because they are not making room for others to speak up.  Every time a leader decides to speak, they have a decision to make:

  • Pronounce with certainty the way things will run OR state you’re open for input
  • Advocate your position OR inquire about the views, knowledge, and even gut feelings of others.
  • Inform OR be informed
  • Open a conversation OR stifle it
  • Limit the ideas in the room OR make room for ideas
  • State ideas in a way that makes them firm and final OR followed by inquiry that invites reaction

Find someone who wants to operate in an environment of fear. Really, go find them! They’re more of us than we care to admit.Then assure them it’s safe to speak up, that any one at any level for any reason at any time can speak openly and honestly to provide input, propose ideas, give feedback, raise questions, express concerns, including challenge decisions.Openness will seep into the room, into the conversations and into relationships!