Your employees are not going to tell you the truth. You can wish they would. You can want them to. You can tell them each and every day how much you value their opinion and welcome their feedback. You can convince yourself that you’re a different kind of boss, someone who’s open to hearing the hard things. And nothing will change.
People only change when it’s in their self-interest to do so. So if they’re not telling you the truth, it means it’s not in their self-interest. It’s not the fear of being fired for saying the wrong thing. It’s more subtle than that. The willingness to tell you the truth — or, better said, the unsanitized truth — comes from a feeling of safety that goes far deeper than any management tactic or technique can ever go.
We all keep our self-interest in a box inside of ourselves. It’s so well protected most of us would have a hard time describing what’s in there. But the box is designed to do one thing and one thing only — to guide us in becoming more of who we are without getting trampled on along the way. And it’s the latter part of that sentence — the self-preservation part of self-interest — which is the reason there’s nothing you can do to pry that box open in someone else. It only opens from the inside.
Your team will open the box — will open up to you — only when it’s safe to do so. Your employees will feel safe when they have the consistent experience, the undeniable reality that telling you the whole truth, is in their self-interest more than it is in yours. Paychecks, perks and positive vibes won’t do it. Being a friendly, compassionate and flexible leader won’t either.
You have to prove it to them beyond a shadow of a doubt. It starts by sharing their reality — by accepting that they’re afraid of you no matter how much you wish they weren’t, and no matter how personally mortifying it is to realize you’re playing a part in that. In fact, when you get that sick feeling in your stomach — when you realize the dysfunctional world you’ve created in spite of your best intentions and commit yourself to changing it — that’s the day you become a real leader.
Making it safe — which is not the same thing as making it easy — is the work of the modern leader. It’s in these spaces — in the soft, relational skills — where all of the best answers are. It’s also a way to express yourself and your care for people in a way you’re probably not accustomed to doing at work. If you start creating this kind of space — even if you do it 5% better today than you did yesterday — they will start talking. And, you will have to re-earn this right with them 100 times before they trust that it’s real.
Is it worth it? It just depends on how much you want to know what’s in the box.