One frustration I frequently hear from leaders is how no one is speaking up in meetings or other events. Despite asking for feedback, engagement, or ideas, leaders don’t understand how come the responses range from one-sentence answers to the sound of crickets. Although there can be many reasons why no one is speaking up, let’s look at some common ones and what you can do to create more engagement.
Common Reasons Why People Don’t Speak Up
As I mentioned, there are no one-size-fits-all answers to why people don’t engage. However, based on my experience working with countless teams and feedback I hear from colleagues, peers, and stakeholders, here are some common reasons:
- Not Listening
Some leaders just flat-out don’t listen. Literally. They’re on their phones, tuned out, distracted, or not hearing anything that’s being said. When people don’t think you’re listening, they don’t think it’s worth speaking.
- Shutting People Down
Arguing, dismissing, judging, belittling, and criticizing are some ways that leaders shut people down. This could look like telling someone they’re making too big a big deal out of an issue, saying that someone’s idea is stupid or mocking it, or not acknowledging someone’s comment and quickly moving on.
- Paying Lip Service
Some leaders attend lots of training and know all the “right” ways to act, but can fall into the habit of going through the motions. They might nod, paraphrase, and praise, but it can come off as insincere and manipulative. On some occasions, leaders will use these techniques to convince people that they care when they really don’t. Leaders don’t think people will notice, but they pretty much always see right through it.
- Not Taking Action
There are many times when leaders will ask for feedback and ideas but don’t follow through with them. The feedback either goes into the ethers, isn’t acknowledged, or implemented. Or, leaders will ask for ideas and then just go with their own. People then wonder why they were asked in the first place.
The Underlying Reason Behind Why People Don’t Speak Up
The thread that runs through the above reasons is a lack of trust in leadership. People don’t trust that they are heard, that they matter, that there won’t be negative consequences for speaking up, that they’re supported, or that leaders sincerely care.
Over time, people shut down. They don’t see any value in sharing or speaking up. If you find yourself facing this situation, chances are high that you exhibit some form of the above behaviors and probably don’t realize it. You’ve most likely somehow broken trust. As a litmus test, the degree of which people don’t engage is often proportionate to how much they do or don’t trust you.
Getting People to Speak Up
Trust is easy to break, but hard to fix. There are no silver bullets. It will take consistent effort over time for people to feel safe enough to share. It is possible, so long as you are committed to looking at yourself and changing your behaviors instead of trying to change everyone else’s. Here are some ways you can rebuild trust and encourage people to speak up:
- Fearlessly Self-Reflect: Using the above behaviors as a reference, notice which ones may be true for you. Perhaps you are enacting them in more subtle ways. Or, maybe there are other ways you don’t realize you’re behaving. Regardless, ask yourself what you might be doing that contributes to people not speaking up and be willing to look at yourself.
- Take Ownership: When you do notice your behaviors, own up to them. Acknowledge them both to yourself and others, and commit to doing something about them. Publicly naming your behavior and what you intend to do about it can be powerful and create immediate changes in the group. It also gives people context for your changes so they don’t wonder what you’re up to.
- Demonstrate Your Commitment: It’s one thing to say you’re going to change; it’s another to actually change. Create a plan to change your behavior and follow-through with it. One of the most damaging things you can do is say you’ll do things differently and then fall back on old habits. This hurts your credibility and makes it less likely that people will trust you the next time you say you’ll do something.