Sharing your voice is easier said than done, particularly in work settings. When you work on the front line of a company or even somewhere in the middle, it’s easy to believe that your voice doesn’t matter, particularly in larger organizations. It’s all too easy to think to yourself:
- “Why would the bosses care what I think?”
- “I’m worried I’ll look stupid if I speak up”
- “What if I say the wrong thing?”
- “I don’t want to be the messenger that gets shot”
- “They’re the ones in charge, so they must know something I don’t know”
Two Way Flow of Information
The reality, however, is that high-performing organizations understand the importance of two-way communication flow, both up and down. In addition to the typical types of formal upward communication – reporting, presentations, performance management information, employee performance meetings, dashboards, and the like – senior managers depend on informal upward communication systems as well. And it can’t just come from their direct reports. It needs to come from all levels, and in some cases all functions, of the organization.
Receiving feedback can come through a chance encounter in the elevator or the cafeteria or even the bathroom. It can come during a small group Q&A session. It can come in the bar after work. Or it can come when a junior person walks up to a senior person’s desk or into their office and offers to share their views.
The very best senior leaders are active cultivators of continuous feedback. They make themselves available. They hold town halls and other communication channels. They walk the floor. They attend company social gatherings. They engender trust by being approachable and being good listeners. They almost always have very good organizational antennae. They promote a strong feedback culture.
Most other senior leaders do only some of these things. It’s not because they don’t want the feedback. They do. It’s just that they haven’t yet mastered the many ways to cultivate regular feedback.
Don’t hold that against them, and don’t assume that it means they’re not interested in your views. They are. But they’re often busy or focused on other topics or thinking about getting home to a family event at the end of the day or any one of many other things that might detract from their feedback gathering.
Still, one of the biggest frustrations of a senior leader is when they make an effort to seek feedback from employees and managers but don’t get any. No one asks a question in town hall, or they don’t share their views when asked in a meeting.
In these situations, the senior leader is left to wonder, “Am I just saying or doing everything right?” (which they rarely are – we’re all human, after all). More likely, they’re saying to themselves, “Do these people just not care?”. Is that the impression you want to leave a senior person? Probably not.
Feedback Culture at Work
To be fair, some senior leaders really don’t want your feedback. They’re threatened by criticism. Or they don’t want their proposal or view of a situation to be countered. Or they’re aware of the issues but are tuning them out because they don’t know what to do about them. Or they know they’re on their way out or to another role and are just ignoring them. It’s even possible that the broader company culture does not create a feedback culture.
All of these are bad situations, and you really don’t want to work for these kinds of leaders or in these kinds of companies. If you do, you should probably be considering your options, because sooner or later, this type of behavior will catch up with the senior leader and possibly with the company overall.
Some leaders will have a negative reaction to bad news in the moment, but later truly internalize the feedback you have shared. While not ideal, this outcome is at least better than willfully ignoring feedback.
Sharing Your Voice: 7 Easy Steps
By being willing to share your voice, you multiply your impact and make yourself more valuable to your team and organization. How do you do it? Here are seven suggestions:
Make sure you understand your company’s strategy and how you fit into it.
Read the company’s Annual Report. Listen to earnings calls or Analyst Day presentations, if you work for a public company. See how the company positions itself in its marketing materials, such as on the corporate website. Know who the competition is. Attend industry events.
All of these are ways to help you develop an understanding of the company’s strategy. Then get clear on where you fit in.
What part of the strategy are you supporting? What do you personally need to do to help the company be successful in that area? How will that success be measured?
It’s essential that you understand your company’s purpose and your own purpose in the company. It will help you put context around your point of view. And as an added bonus, it will likely help you get up in the morning more excited about going to work each day.
Develop your own view on how it’s going.
Put yourself in your boss’ shoes, or their boss’ shoes, or the CEO’s shoes. This is what companies mean when they say they want you to, “Act like an owner.”
What do you think is going well and not so well? What would you be doing differently if you were in charge? What does your division or your team or even what do you need to do to make that happen? What’s getting in the way of that? Funding, resourcing, time, something else?
Applying your own critical thinking to the situation will make you more valuable in your day-to-day work and more prepared for that informal upward feedback opportunity.
Take advantage of opportunities to get noticed.
Attend Town Halls and ask questions. Offer to work on special projects. Participate in company social or volunteer events. Introduce yourself to the senior leaders. Tell them what you do, who you work for, how long you’ve worked for the company, etc.
In other words, help them get to know you. You may leave it at that the first few times you interact with them, but over time, you’re likely to feel more comfortable around them, and they’ll also be getting to know you. That puts you in an excellent position to share your views when the time or need arises.
If you have concerns or questions, ask.
Staying silent is the worst thing you can do. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company refers to the "obligation to dissent", i.e., the notion that even the most junior staff member has not just a right but an obligation to raise differences with the most senior person. Why? You may legitimately see the situation in a different light than others.
You may have unique experience on which you can draw. You almost certainly have more specific facts than the senior leader, particularly if they’re related to what you do every day. You may just be curious about something that hasn’t been discussed.
Whatever the basis, be willing to share your concerns and ask your questions. Senior leaders are desperate for this kind of intelligence.
Be thoughtful about time and place.
Everyone responds to feedback differently in different situations. Sometimes a matter requires urgent attention, whether the senior leader is ready to hear it or not. But most of the time, what you have to share can wait for an opportune moment. Manufacture those moments if needed, but be strategic about when and how you share your thoughts.
Focus on the “we”.
Get rid of any “us / them” or victim’s mentality in your mindset. View yourself as contributing to your company’s success, because you do. Your perspectives will be taken much more seriously if the senior leader to whom you’re speaking feels like you want to be part of the solution as opposed to just complaining or pointing out all the problems.
Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go exactly as you’d hoped.
Sometimes you don’t say something out loud the way you’d planned it in your head. Sometimes, you may be unaware of a key piece of information that detracts from your point of view. Sometimes you may catch the senior leader at the wrong moment, even if your thoughtful about picking that moment.
No matter what the cause, these situations are going to happen. They’ve happened to all of us, and the vast majority of senior leaders won’t hold such situations against you if you were polite and thoughtful about your feedback.
They’ll be grateful (and probably impressed) if they see that you are trying to see things from their perspective or the company’s perspective, or if you demonstrate an understanding of the competitive or industry dynamics. They’ll definitely be impressed if you convey your thoughts using well-formed logic.
At the very least, they’ll know you cared enough to speak your opinion, and that can be nothing but positive for you.
Finding your voice will undoubtedly make you a more valuable employee and multiply your impact. So tune out those feelings of fear and self-doubt, and get to fostering a feedback rich culture.
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