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How to Get Employees to Speak Up about a Colleague’s Work

Conflicting views can lead to unlocking solutions

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BY Marishka M. Cabrera - 29 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Compared to their Western counterparts, Asians are often perceived as shy and afraid to speak up, avoiding conflict as much as possible. But what if raising concerns about a struggling peer, for instance, could save the company from potential disaster? How can you get employees to speak up, especially about a colleague’s work, without making them feel that they are overstepping?

In his May article for the Harvard Business Review, author Ron Carucci—co-founder and managing partner at Navalent—talks about how people in organizations may be comfortable engaging in debate about opposing views but are reluctant to raise issues about a colleague’s actions, mostly for fear of looking like a know-it-all or busybody.

“People didn’t think it was their responsibility to address issues outside their business. They wanted to stay in their lane,” Carucci writes.

He makes the case that making it “psychologically safe” to speak up is one thing, but getting people to actually do it is another. He says if you want people in your organization to routinely raise difficult issues, you have to make it an expectation—and back it up with processes and behavior that reinforce it.

Here are three ways Southeast Asian entrepreneurs can do it, based on what Carucci has seen great organizations do:

1. Set the expectation

Carucci suggests letting those you lead know that when they have insights on a colleague’s strategy, they can freely express them, albeit in a respectful and helpful way.

Farouk Meralli, founder and CEO of health technology start-up mClinica, says in this Inc. Southeast Asia piece on how bosses empower their teams, “We believe in creating an enabling environment for our team where each person is able to express their ideas on the basis of merit alone. Creating this attitude starts from the beginning when we hire the team.”

2. Organize “speed dating” exchanges

Carucci says that with many of the teams he has worked with, they spend a few hours in one-on-one meetings that last for about 20-30 minutes each. In each round, he writes, both leaders exchange views about the other. “This mechanism has been transformative for some teams, whose comfort with making each colleague’s success their agenda has become the norm for the rest of the organization,” Carucci writes.

In this Inc. Southeast Asia article on communicating with millennial employees, Cindy Leong, founder of Singapore-based personality training center Relationship Studio, says being intentional in how you mentor and communicate with staff goes a long way. “I advocate for one-on-one coffee sessions between managers and staff, because many people—especially in Singapore—would not open themselves up in a group setting,” she says.

3. Encourage shared problem solving

Carucci explains how it works: One member brings a business challenge he or she is currently facing. After explaining the context, the rest of the team asks questions and then offers ideas, feedback, and support.

He says, “Using this method, I’ve seen leaders discover issues with their own leadership, view challenges from an entirely new perspective, and even out the resources spread across departments. This approach helps minimize feeling defensive or dismissive of others’ challenging views because you are expressly asking for them.”

Plus, making it a part of the regular meeting agenda reinforces the notion that, ultimately, speaking up is routine, expected behavior.