What hurts more than losing a great employee? Feeling like it came out of nowhere.
When you're blindsided by an employee leaving, you might ask yourself things like: "Is there anything that I could've done to prevent it? How will this affect the other employees? What else in my company do I not know about?"
The fact is, you'll never know everything as the CEO. People will never tell you the complete truth to your face, regardless of if you ask for it.
Why is this the case? Oftentimes, it has nothing to do with you as a business owner. Deeply ingrained psychological and cultural assumptions cause people to hold things back in any interpersonal communication. However, I believe there are ways to overcome these assumptions, and get your employees to open up more.
Here are 5 reasons why employees won't tell you the truth, and what you can do about each of them:
Self-preservation is a natural human instinct, and your employees may have internalized the saying, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
What you can do about it: Remind yourself that when you ask for feedback as a CEO, you're doing so from a position of power. You can minimize this perceived power imbalance by putting your guard down and showing a little vulnerability. For instance, you can say something like, "I've been recently feeling a shaky about X, Y, and Z. What do you think? I'd like your input on this."
Employees don't want to add another piece of feedback to the pile unless they have a tangible solution to offer — regardless of if that feedback could be valuable for the company to know.
What you can do about it: Give your employees a specific timeframe to contextualize their feedback. For example, instead of asking, "What could be better at the company?" (which usually leads to generic, vague responses), you can ask, "What's something in the past 2 weeks that's bugged you?" This way, even though an employee doesn't have an immediate solution for a problem, you can uncover something you might not have known otherwise.
Employees often feel reluctant to speak up when they've experienced a situation when feedback has been taken personally.
What you can do about it: When responding to feedback, you can sound less defensive by replacing the word "but" with "and". Listen to the difference it can make in terms of tone: "Yes, I see that is a definitely issue, but I think we're going to dedicate more resources to that" versus "Yes, I see that is a definitely issue, and I think we're going to dedicate more resources to that."
Employees hold back from giving honest feedback when they don't want it to seem that they're trying to embarrass their boss or “get the upper-hand.”
What you can do about it: To get the truth of how your employees perceive your leadership of the company, you can frame the conversation as an opportunity for personal growth versus a "sit-down-and-give-me-feedback" session. For example, you can say, "I'm looking to learn and improve as a leader. Do you see any opportunities for me to do this?"
The most commonly cited reason that employees withhold their feedback is when they feel that nothing would change even if they did speak up.
What you can do about it: Do something small that might have slipped through the cracks a while ago. It might be replacing the broken soap dispenser in the office bathroom, or finally upgrading the coffee machine that was talked about 6 months ago. Though it might seem trivial in comparison to all the other tasks you need to take care of as a CEO, your employees will notice. When you knock out a few of the low-hanging fruit, it can create a more trusting environment over time.
There's are two huge caveats to all of this. First, in order to get your employees to tell you the truth, you have to want to know the truth as the CEO. You have to genuinely believe that your company's success is contingent on open and honest communication between you and your employees. Insincerity can be detected from a mile away, and simply going through the motions of best practices helps no one.
Second, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort. All of the actions outlined above sound simple, but they're easy to forget about in the moment and to repeatedly do. It takes time. But in committing to wanting to know the truth, and wanting to foster a more transparent culture, your company will be well on its way there.