Employee participation

It’s not unusual for leaders to lament the fact that employees don’t ask questions during a town hall session.

But here’s a new twist: During a recent focus group, employees at a large corporation told me they don’t feel comfortable using a social media platform to pose questions. What’s the obstacle? “I don’t want to appear dumb by asking something I should know the answer to,” said one professional.

So here’s the big question: How can you encourage employees to ask questions, despite the obstacles?

Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Find out why employees don’t speak up. Conduct focus groups or interviews to explore what stops employees from participating. There are likely some common challenges (see below), but there may be some unique factors at work in your organization. Only by understanding the barriers can you address them.
  2. Allow plenty of time. Most town halls and other leader venues are too heavily weighted toward presentations, leaving only a few minutes at the end for Q&A. Once employees start to watch the clock (“only 10 more minutes”), they’re discouraged from participating. You need enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build momentum.
  3. Eliminate the spotlight. Even the most extroverted of us find it difficult to raise our hand in front of all our colleagues. So create a way for employees to share their questions or thoughts more quietly. Facilitate a break-out session at tables or in small groups of two or three and ask employees to generate a couple of questions or concerns on cards. Then ask a spokesperson from selected groups to verbally share a thought. Because the ideas were generated in a group, it’s safer to speak up.
  4. Instead of calling for questions, coach leaders to pose a question. Even in the most open, supportive culture, it’s risky for employees to expose potential ignorance by asking a question. But if the leader poses a question—like “What are the obstacles to achieving this objective?”—employees have the opportunity to participate from a position of strength.
  5. In social media, don’t set leaders up only as experts; encourage them to ask questions. When leaders seem to have all the answers, they’re modeling a “know-everything” behavior that discourages anyone else to ask questions. But if leaders make it a practice to ask questions—“What’s your experience with this? What are some ideas you have for how we can address this?”—they lead by example.
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