Smart Business Solutions - HR

What Your Employees Aren't Telling You

A new study suggest most staff have at least one workplace grievance that they haven't voiced out loud. How to get them to talk

Written by Murad Hemmadi

Managing employees is much easier when you know what’s going on with them. But a new study from corporate training and organizational performance consulting firm VitalSmarts suggests that your staff may hiding their problems and frustrations from you.

VitalSmarts asked 1,409 workers what they would say and to whom if they were given a consequence-free opportunity to say anything they wanted to one person at their place of work. Management was the group that respondents were most likely to conceal their grievances from, with 41.5% saying they had something to say to their boss. And more than half (56%) reported that they’d been hiding their problem for at least a year.

Listening, bosses are increasingly being told, is a vital management skill. VitalSmarts’ findings make for troubling reading, because they suggest that many employees don’t feel safe or comfortable telling their managers the whole truth or volunteering information when they’re troubled or frustrated by something. Employers have a major incentive to know what their workers are really thinking: 66% of respondents believed their organization would be helped if they did voice their concern or grievance.

“It’s not your fault entirely,” says David Maxfield, Vice-President of Research for VitalSmarts and co-author of Crucial Accountability. “We live in a culture where people don’t speak up until they’re so frustrated that they speak up in anger.” Here’s what you can do to encourage your employees to voice their grievances.

Watch yourself

Maxfield has noticed something interesting when working with the actors who VitalSmarts uses to enact scenes for training videos. “Ask them to play the role of the manager, and all of a sudden they take on this terrifying demeanour,” he says. “Why do they think a manager has to be an ogre?” Because of the characters on TV in shows like Taxi or The Office, say the actors.

Your own employees may have similar perceptions of what managers are like, cautions Maxfield. “They come in with all kinds of preconceived notions that inhibit them from speaking up,” he says. “They’re looking for you to confirm those stereotypes that it’s not safe [to say anything].”

Even the most open and personable leader can cause employees to feel like their feedback is unwelcome if they’re not careful. “It doesn’t take much on your part, whether it’s criticizing them for an idea they’ve had in a disrespectful or stern way, or witnessing you reading somebody the riot act,” says Maxfield. Make sure to conduct difficult or confrontational matters in private, and look for opportunities to praise people for speaking up.

Facilitate grievance resolution

Co-workers were the second-most cited category that respondents had unvoiced grievances with. That’s hardly surprising says Maxfield. Employees spend so much of their week at work that even seemingly minor aggravations like talking loudly or being messy can add up to a serious grudge over time.

Don’t simply ignore interpersonal conflict amongst employees. “Personality disputes and people not getting along are very real disruptors to productivity and the quality of the workplace,” says Maxfield. He cites Gallup’s periodic employee engagement survey, which found that the single best predictor of engagement was whether respondents had a best friend in the workplace. “That’s not very job related, is it?” he notes. “[But] it’s a the social environment, not just a place where robots complete widgets.”

You can’t make your employees like each other, but you can—and should—encourage them to resolve their interpersonal conflicts. “You have to give individuals the skills they need to solve these problems on their own,” Maxfield says. “And then you create some opportunities to where they can do that.”

Show them how it’s done

Saying that you’re open to employees voicing their concerns isn’t enough—you have to make them believe it. “Employers need to model that they don’t have zones of silence, that they don’t have taboos around things that can be discussed,” suggests Maxfield.

Remember that your employees don’t see every interaction you have. “I’d warn leaders that most employees don’t see them day to day,” Maxfield says.”You have to find ways to be a public role model, not just doing it behind the scenes with your other senior leaders.”

To illustrate his point, Maxfield recounts an incident involving eBay, one of VitalSmarts’ clients. The company’s Chief Financial Officer was set to deliver some tough news. To encourage employees to voice their concerns and issues, a division manager seeded the audience with tough questions, and the CFO made an effort to answer them and commend the questioners for asking. “Of course he could answer those tough questions behind the scenes with the division manager, but doing it in public is what these leaders need to be able to,” says Maxfield.


Originally appeared on