How to make your people speak up

#52, Mar 13, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

An engineering manager was participating in a retro meeting with his team. He was listening to what people were saying. He smiled. He heard the phrase “great team collaboration” a lot. He was proud.

A few days later Petya from our gang and I were in a coaching session with the team. As we entered the room where people were gathering, a senior member looked at us with hope.

“Petya and Hari are here, can we talk about the issue from last Friday?” – he quickly said in front of everyone.

“Uhm… let’s not bother the team. Let’s discuss this in our 1-to-1 meeting” – the manager interrupted.

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* started writing this in my car on a rainy Wednesday as I just dropped off my 8yo son to school & am now waiting for Petya to do a training with a group of tech leaders */

Today’s tale is focused on making it safe for people to speak up.

By default, people choose to be silent

It’s so much easier for people on your team not to speak up:
✔️ They don’t show vulnerability
✔️ They don’t fight with others
✔️ They don’t look stupid

If they do speak, some will choose to put a mask on.

What I haven’t told you about today’s tale is that the ‘great team collaboration’ phrase was a fake one.

It was just what people defaulted to after experiencing previous talks about problems. They knew there would be no real discussions. So why bother.

As team coaches, one of our main jobs is to create a safe environment.
To make it safe for people to speak up.
To make it safe for people to disagree.

That’s why the senior member approached us in front of the team.
He felt safe to speak up.

But the manager intervened…
(I’ll tell you why in a bit)

One phrase to avoid

I’ve seen too many leaders saying ‘Speak up!’ to nudge people to be open.
That’s not how you make it safe for people to speak up.

/* if you haven’t read this book by Amy Edmondson on creating a psychologically safe environment, I highly recommend it */

When people on your team are 100% sure of their opinion, they’ll speak. Regardless of the context.
Regardless of how safe the environment is.

But most times they fear opening their mouths.

And it’s your job as a leader to make it safe.
To model vulnerability in your team.
To make the silent voices louder.

In great teams, people share their raw thoughts without fear.

Use these 4 phrases to model vulnerability

Great leaders say these 4 in front of their team:
▪️ I made a mistake
▪️ I don’t know
▪️ I need help
▪️ I’m sorry

Your people make mistakes all the time.
Your people lack understanding all the time.
Your people need help about work all the time.

But do they communicate it?

You know that if you trust people, you feel safe to be vulnerable in front of them.
But the opposite is also true.

If you’re vulnerable in front of people and they don’t use it against you – you’ll improve your trust one tiny bit.

By using these phrases, you model people to be vulnerable.
And when they’re vulnerable, it’s your job to not let others use this against them, willingly or unwillingly.

One question to ask people on your team

“I feel safe to express my opinion”

Your role as a leader is for people to answer “Hell, yeah!” to this one.
Every person should feel safe to express their opinion.
Especially when it differs from that of others.

/* This is the first question we’d ask people on your team if you assess the communication on your team */

When I was an engineering manager, one of the goals during my 1-to-1 meetings was to have a clear understanding of this.

Because when people don’t feel safe:
↳ they avoid disagreements
↳ they get less engaged
↳ they get demotivated
↳ they quit
… silently

Avoid toxic positivity

Going back to today’s tale and why the manager interrupted the senior team member.

It was with a good intention.
But as you know, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

The manager wanted people to feel good on the team.
That’s why he avoided any negative talks.
That’s why he sugarcoated everything.
That’s why he wanted ‘great team collaboration’.

But let me tell you something:
People respect you for telling the truth.
People respect you for treating them like adults.

We’ve done lots of Anxiety Parties and a common working anxiety of leaders is passing along bad news or negativity.

“I worry that when something is bad and I tell you what I think, this affects you badly” – a different senior dev manager once told his team during such a party.

His people not only didn’t have a problem with this.
His people appreciated him for telling the truth.
His people expected him to treat them like adults.

/* Authenticity is one of 3 elements of trust; if you haven’t seen this video on how to build trust, check it out */

His people trusted him because he was authentic.
No bullshit.
No toxic positivity.

Summing it all up

Having high psychological safety on your team doesn’t mean everything is great.

Great teams talk about the tough issues.
Great teams let people be vulnerable.
Great teams create the environment for people to speak up.

If you want to speed up this process:
1) Avoid toxic positivity
2) Use the 4 vulnerability phrases
3) Avoid the “Speak up!” request
4) Regularly assess whether people feel safe

… and the team lived happily ever after.

Get a leader's tale

leadership insights
directly in your inbox!

Learn more...