Once in a while I watch Undercover Boss—a show about CEOs posing as new hires in their own company to see what really goes on—and I’m always bothered by how unaware the CEOs are about what’s happening on the front lines.

I’m not especially surprised. This is a common problem in organizations. Despite leaders’ best intentions, it can be difficult for employees to speak up. The result is that, too often, valuable information brewing in the trenches fails to reach decision-makers at the top. 

Amy C. Edmondson and James R. Detert address the communication flow (or lack thereof) between employees and their superiors in a study of 200 employees. They found that even with policies and mechanisms in place for raising concerns, fears about the potential personal impact of speaking up kept employees quiet. More importantly, employees were not only reluctant to raise grievances and concerns, but also to share ideas they had that could help the company improve.  

“In our interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to employees, whereas the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain. So people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet. Their frequent conclusion seemed to be, ‘When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.’”  — Edmondson A. C. and Detert, J.R. (May 2007) “Why Employees are Afraid to Speak Up.” Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2007/05/why-employees-are-afraid-to-speak.

For leaders, the risk is clear. There is a powerful dynamic at play that can keep employees from sharing ideas with you simply by virtue of your role and what they make that mean—and not based on anything you’re actually doing or not doing.

That creates a block in the flow of valuable information. Employees often have the inside track on what works and doesn’t, what customers are dealing with, and even what improvements are needed most—and leaders need those insights to make good decisions.

To offset this problem and avoid missing important opportunities for growth and innovation, takes a very deliberate effort to encourage – even require – information sharing. It also takes a conscious effort to create a culture where employees feel safe enough to voice their opinions.

The good news is, you don’t have to go undercover to talk to your front line employees. Here are some ideas to help you create a culture of free-flowing information:

Be present: Regularly join employee activities and engage with heart. If it’s a big deal when you come out of your office or onto the shop floor, that’s a sign that you’re not doing enough of it. Be present at employee gatherings – not just all company meetings where you’re in the spotlight, but informal lunches and conference-room birthday celebrations.

Have real conversations: Hold one-on-one or small group discussions with the goal of hearing what employees are experiencing in their part of the organization. Set a tone of genuine curiosity, knowing that it may be hard for them to tell you what’s going on. Create a space safe enough for them to share honestly. Ask WHY they feel the way they do, so you can get the real scoop. If you hold one of these discussions each week, that’s 52 conversations a year!

Reward information: Not only should you avoid punishing the messenger, but find ways to reward those who deliver valuable information. Acknowledge people who offer ideas or help you make better decisions and use that to set an example of behavior you want to see. Reward ideas even if you don’t end up implementing them, to showcase the value you place on creativity, even as you acknowledge choices that need to be made. 

Facilitate the flow of information: With one client implementing a strategic change, the project leaders and I implemented a “listening” assignment, where managers were asked to hold workshops with their teams. In these meetings, the managers shared information about the project and gathered team member concerns about the implementation and ideas for how to best communicate the change to customers. The managers were expected to listen openly and capture detailed notes to bring along to our next planning meeting. The insights were invaluable in ensuring that the implementation plan addressed critical issues identified by the teams, and that the communications to the customers were on point. These kinds of “listening sessions” could be used in other settings to cover a variety of topics.

Explore when decisions are delegated up to you: When a decision is escalated to your desk, be sure to dig into the issue so that you understand what’s underneath the request.  Sometimes decisions get pushed up the ladder without all of the relevant information. Take the time to really explore the situation with the people who have raised it, so that you have the full benefit of their thinking on the issue so far.

The result is a culture of employees who feel connected and valued, and leaders who are in tune with the decision-driving insights they can only get from the front lines.

Key Take Away: Employees often have the inside track on what works and doesn’t, what customers are dealing with, and even what improvements are needed most—and leaders need those insights to make good decisions.

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