How To Get People To Open Up At Work

By Kevin on August 21, 2013 in employee engagement, leadership

How can you get people to open up at work? I can remember clearly being frustrated by this issue long ago myself. My startup was growing fast, our numbers were great and I was happy and energized. I’d hold team meetings, acted like the sage on the stage, and when I’d ask for questions or comments I only heard crickets. I assumed silence meant contentment. And then we did our annual engagement survey, and my 360 feedback, and I got an earful.

It was tough for me to swallow my pride and admit that something was wrong. My behaviors, or the culture I created, were leading to silence. People only “spoke up” when they could do it anonymously in writing. Sure I could have just blamed immature employees who need to learn better communication skills, but I can’t control others, only myself. So I focused on the changes I could make.

First, I thought about all the reasons why someone might be uncomfortable speaking their mind to me, whether in a one-on-one meeting or in a group meeting:

  • They could be shy
  • They don’t want to appear dumb; afraid they’ll show their ignorance of an issue
  • They want to be seen as a trusted, low maintenance employee
  • They may be analytical in nature and not quick to give an answer
  • They might think their ideas don’t count; they are wasting their time

Putting myself in the shoes of my team members, and understanding that they weren’t all as comfortable speaking out as I was, led me to adopt several new practices.

1)      Practice active listening. I made sure I was looking at them with my full attention (pull the laptop screen down and flip over your smartphone). I would truly listen, never interrupt, and frequently paraphrase back to them to confirm understanding.

2)      Build trust through non-judgment. I learned to accept their statements and ideas with a simple “thank you” or “thank for sharing”. Or “thank you, I’m going to think about that.” Unless what they shared was going to have an immediate negative impact on the business, I would rarely give an immediate opinion. Bosses often do know why certain ideas won’t work because they have access to more information and are more experienced. You don’t have to accept every new idea or implement it, but you also don’t have to shoot it down mere seconds after it leaves their mouth.

3)      Give advance notice. I began to share topics and agenda items ahead of time. Many people just process information more slowly than others. I found that sending out topics in advance of meetings, even 1-on-1 meetings would help to two-way communication. It can very informal, “Joe, let’s grab a few minutes tomorrow afternoon. I’m thinking about ways to improve communication around here and would like to get your thoughts.”

4)      Give an assignment; ask for a report. For bigger issues I would make sure their ideas was a part of their “job.” “Joe, I’d like to see if there are ways we can improve communication on the team. Can you think about it, talk to some others, and write up a few notes? Perhaps we can review at end of the month.”

5)      Ask for specifics. Instead of saying “So, how am I doing?”  Or even, “Can you give me some feedback on my performance?” I began to ask, “Thanks for the positive reinforcement, but I can always get better. If you had to pick one thing for me to work on, what you say that should be?”

6)      Enable them to “blame” other people. For people who are really shy or not fully trusting yet, you can give them “cover” by asking, “So, what do you hear other people saying about my performance?” Or, “What do you think others think about communication around here? What ideas have you heard other people talking about for ways to make it better?”

It took some time for me to be consistent in these behaviors and for people to begin to embrace face-to-face honest communication, but ultimately it led to off-the-chart engagement scores and a Best Place to Work in PA award.

Check out Kevin Kruse’s new book, Employee Engagement for Everyone, and discover how to turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams. Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and speaker who built and sold several multimillion dollar companies using a talent-first strategy. For insider tips and exclusive content, join his newsletter at

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