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How to Encourage Your Teammates to Speak Up More Often

Being silent causes more harm than good.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 1, 2022

10 Ways to help others voice their opinions and concerns

Multiple studies show that psychological safety is critical to building high-performing teams and innovative cultures. However, most articles focus on what leaders can do rather than what anyone could do. Thus, creating the impression that psychological safety is mostly built top down. But what about you? As a team member, your role is critical in creating a safe space where your colleagues can voice opinions, raise concerns, and share ideas without fear of criticism or retaliation.

Silence is the enemy of collaboration and innovation. The team's outcome suffers when teammates don't express their unique viewpoints. In this piece, I will share practical ways in which you can encourage your colleagues to speak up more often.

Silence Is the Enemy of Teamwork

The fear of speaking up in a team is pervasive. According to Gallup, only 30% of employees strongly agree that their opinions count at work. Unfortunately, silence is often unnoticed.

When your teammates aren't speaking up, are they actively listening or censoring their thoughts?

Silence is deceiving. It's both a sign of focus and disengagement. Silence is necessary for listening and reflection – many people need to understand and think before they talk. However, it can also indicate that your colleagues don't feel safe voicing their concerns.

Holding back is natural. Staying silent is a default defense mechanism when we don't feel safe. That's why most of us think twice before voicing an opinion or sharing an idea in a group. We don't want to be ignored, ridiculed, or judged – speaking up usually gets us into trouble.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker

Psychological safety is the antidote to silence. It's the shared feeling that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. People feel secure to be themselves, participate, speak out, and challenge groupthink without fear of retaliation.

Feeling safe doesn't mean being protective. It's not about being nice or lowering the bar. A safe team encourages diversity of perspectives, dissent, and debate – key ingredients for innovation.

It's everyone's responsibility to build a psychologically-safe culture. The shared feeling is the result of collective behavior. Rather than wait for the leader to create the right environment, every teammate should do their part.

Psychological safety is a spectrum. It's not whether you have it but how much. Your team must learn to climb the Psychological Safety Ladder© as I explain in my book Remote, Not Distant. To encourage your colleagues to speak up, master the three levels.

The three levels of the Psychological Safety Ladder are:

Level 1: Welcome. We all need to belong to a tribe. It's about feeling safe to bring your whole self to work, connect at a personal level, actively participate, and build strong relationships. Belonging is vital for building high-performing teams.

Level 2: Courageous Conversations. Dissent and debate are critical for teams to perform at their best. Courageous conversations are possible when we feel that our unique skills and perspectives are accepted.

Level 3: Innovation. Creativity can only happen if we first feel welcome and safe to have courageous conversations. Level 3 is about feeling safe to share fresh ideas in the open, challenge the status quo, experiment, and make mistakes while exploring new paths.

Climbing the Psychological Safety Ladder is a progression. You must achieve level one before moving to the next one. Keep that in mind when choosing the different ways to help your teammates speak out.

10 Ways to Encourage Your Colleagues to Speak Out

So, what's the best way to help your teammates voice their opinions and ideas?

The following ideas will help you get started. They are all very effective regardless if your team works fully in the office, a hybrid model, or fully-remotely. Try them with your team and see which ones stick.

1. Check in with your colleagues

An essential thing you can do to encourage others to speak is to check how they are doing. Texting or emailing a colleague just to say “hi” feels like an insignificant gesture but new research suggests that casually reaching out to people has a huge impact.

Invite people to share how they're doing or use more intentional prompts.

Carve time out at the beginning of team or 1-2-1 meetings to empathize with your colleagues. Check-in rounds became more common when teams were forced to work from home. However, many have gone back to normal and are missing this powerful opportunity to check in with each other.

Some questions you can use:

What's got your attention?

What words would you use to describe where your head is? And where is your heart?

What was the weather like for you at work this past week?

Metaphors and images are potent stimuli, especially for those colleagues who struggle to talk about their feelings.

You don't need your manager's permission to check in with your colleagues.

2. Understand how they want to be treated

Silent means something different for everyone. Some people get anxious when others are silent, while many appreciate that white space as an invitation to reflect and think. Don't assume everyone operates as you do.

Some of your colleagues are extroverted, while many others are introverted. Some people talk to think while others think to talk. Neither is better - your team needs both.

Invite your team to share their 'washing instructions.' Some people, like some clothes, may need to be treated delicately or washed separately. Others may object to having their ideas ironed out or may shrink in troubled waters.

Treat your colleagues how they want to be treated, not how the boss likes to be treated.

3. Take space, make space

Conversations are your team's currency and their value depends on everyone's participation. Tapping into collective wisdom is one of the key benefits when people speak up. To achieve this, you must find the balance between taking space and making space for others.

Conversational turn-taking is a simple way to ensure equal participation. Facilitate dialogue, giving each member their turn to speak and the rest to listen. Invite quiet people to take up space by going first. Louder voices should make space for others by holding their urge to speak and becoming better at listening.

Building a psychologically-safe team requires everyone to adjust their preferred style. Introverts need to practice speaking more often, and extroverts must learn to make room without feeling censored. The idea is not to silence one's voice but to listen to what both introverts and extroverts say.

Design participation to include everyone – leaders should always speak last.

4. Ban interruptions

Women, minorities, and introverts are often victims of interruptions. When people feel constantly silenced by others, they will default to silence to avoid the pain of being interrupted.

Often, we don't realize when we cut someone off. However, there's a pattern behind many interruptions: the pain and anxiety are caused by the same old folks.

Institute a "no-interruptions" rule. Invite your colleagues to become more aware of how painful interruptions are. Moving on, everyone should pay attention – interruptions are not okay. Interrupt the interrupter to make everyone feel heard.

Encourage the interrupter to "hold on" so the team can fully understand what one member was saying before moving on.

The no-interruptions norm improves the quality of conversations. Deal privately with repeat interrupters.

5. Celebrate the messenger

Until the arrival of modern communication, a human envoy was responsible for delivering messages. If the message was unbecoming, the receiver would blame the messenger for the bad news and execute them. That's how the "shoot the messenger" saying started.

It's no surprise that team members are afraid to be the bearers of bad news. They don't want to be executed in public. However, a lack of information is more harmful to a team.

Help your colleagues reframe "bad news" as data. To improve something, you first need to realize it's not working. Your team can only react to what they know.

Encourage teammates to raise difficult topics. Be thankful and celebrate those who are upfront.

6. Ask better questions

Are you asking good questions?

Often people don't speak up not because they don't want to engage but because our questions fail to inspire conversation.

Steve Jobs was getting anxious when he became CEO of Pixar. Employees weren't speaking up at the end of staff meetings, even though Jobs kept asking for comments and questions. The audience was so quiet that he could hear crickets on the stage.

At some point, Jobs realized he had to change the question. "Do you have any feedback?" failed to encourage people to speak up.

The CEO tried a different approach: "What's NOT working at Pixar? What's working at Pixar?"

The first question invited people to discuss what needed to be fixed. It came from a place of curiosity and vulnerability. The second one balanced the first, helping employees acknowledge the positive things – it was about appreciation.

Next time your colleagues aren't making comments or asking questions, try a different approach. Start by asking more interesting questions.

7. Let people think before they talk

People need silence to process information and come up with questions or ideas.

If you're asking your colleagues for input, give them time to think about the problem at hand. You can send them reading material, a video with your approach, or questions ahead of the meeting. Or you can start the discussion with silent time for everyone to review the materials and take time to think.

Once you know who will attend the meeting, share the questions or information needed. Also, set up the stage by defining what's expected from participants so they can prepare. Is the purpose of the meeting to focus or flare?

Remember, not everyone can speak on their feet. Many people need to think before they talk – design a space for reflection.

8. Keep it small

Size matters, especially when it comes to encouraging conversations.

One of the key reasons meetings are not productive is that too many people are involved. When airtime becomes scarce, people quickly disengage and pretend to multitask. Also, a large crowd intimidates many people into staying silent.

Productivity and creativity are size-dependent: they tend to decrease as you increase the number of participants. Keep your meetings small for more productive discussions and conversations – ideally, five to seven participants.

Break-out rooms are a great way to keep meetings small. For delicate topics, a conversation in a duo creates more intimacy and psychological safety. Brainstorming is more effective when you have five or fewer people working together, as everyone has time to participate and there's less competition for whose idea gets approved.

Try a different approach when your colleagues are not talking in a meeting. Go small.

9. Replace blame with curiosity

Perfectionism is a limiting mindset that hinders psychological safety. Our unconscious desire to always be right encourages a judgmental approach that harms interpersonal relationships. Two critical moments shape team cooperation forever: the first vulnerability and the first disagreement, according to research by Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer.

These small moments open the door to two possible paths, as Daniel Coyle explains in The Culture Code:

Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together?

Are we about winning interactions or about learning together?

In these critical moments, your colleagues can become defensive and shut down – or, even worse, start blaming each other. You can promote a culture of curiosity instead by inviting teammates to seize the growth opportunity.

Polzer recommends a curious approach: "Hey, that's interesting. Why don't you agree? I might be wrong and I'm curious and want to talk about it some more."

Invite your colleagues to replace blame with curiosity. Shift the conversation from "Who did it?" to "How can we prevent this from happening again?"

10. Model speaking up

What about you?

The best way to get others to speak up is to model that behavior yourself. Are you asking encouraging questions? Are you being vulnerable in front of your colleagues? Do you address sensitive topics in public even if it feels uncomfortable?

Psychological safety is a two-way street: the team supports each individual and each teammate should contribute to making the team safer. Just like trust, someone needs to take the first step.

Model the desired behavior by speaking up. Don't wait for others to do so, set the pace and expectations. When someone crosses the line and shares what everyone is thinking, but no one is saying, it becomes easier for the rest to follow suit.

Modeling behavior requires sharing the air time - remember the take and make space rule.

Silence Is Endorsement

Toxic cultures don't happen in a vacuum - leaders need enablers to make their toxic behavior part of the organizational culture.

Speaking up is not easy, but silence is always more harmful - especially when we keep relevant information to ourselves. Your team can only improve the things they talk about. Don't let silence become an endorsement of unhealthy practices or issues that will harm the team in the long run.

Purposefully looking in the other direction - being a bystander - enables bad behavior or practices. Speaking up is vital to solving issues, from minor to bigger ones. Contribute to promoting psychological safety by encouraging your colleagues to speak up, especially when it's an issue that feels hard to address.

To learn more about how to promote psychological safety, get a copy of my new book Remote, Not Distant – or join our Fearless Culture Program.

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