Why Employees Don’t Speak Their Minds: Unveiling Workplace Communication Challenges

Employee Whispering

Why Employees Don't Speak Their Minds

My friend Lisa called me the other day with a problem. A large corporation hired her as a consultant to shepherd a project. She anticipated a straightforward engagement until…

...employees started to confide in her. They shared their gripes, suggestions, and observations about company leaders.

Every time they shared a tidbit, Lisa asked, “Have you shared this with the leaders?”

They always responded, “No way. We could never do that.”

Lisa called me because I help companies work through communication breakdowns or -- in this case -- communication voids.

I see it often: Employees have plenty to say. They just don’t say it in a collaborative setting.

Lisa asked me, “Why does this happen, and what can we do to fix it?”


The answer: It starts at the top.


I tell business leaders their employees hold things back. Often, the leaders don’t believe it...at first. They think all is well. They think they run an open, communicative, trusting workplace.

They cringe when I tell them the truth. Their employees hold things back because fear outweighs trust.

Employees fear backlash when they state an opinion, especially if it challenges leaders who don’t build an open, trusting culture. Employees don’t trust the boss and coworkers to welcome constructive feedback. They think it’s safer to sit silent, nod, and accept, rather than speak up. A company full of yes-men and yes-women.

After they leave the meeting room, employees whisper to coworkers -- or outside consultants -- what they really think.

Back-channel gripe sessions rule the day. Morale and productivity plummet.

And leaders don’t have a clue. I’ve seen this play out repeatedly.

I could wallpaper my house with studies showing leaders overestimate their communication skills. Leaders mean well. Most want to be trusted and hope their employees feel comfortable enough to share ideas and air concerns. But those well-meaning leaders don’t always see the communication-suppressing culture they’ve created, and their employees are afraid to show them the light.

So here are five tips for leaders to create a workplace where employees say what’s on their minds, communication flourishes, and great things get done.


  1. Seek help -- even if you don’t think you need it. Leaders lose if they think they know it all. Leaders build stronger companies when they continuously improve themselves and company culture.
  2. Foster openness and trust. This begins with you. You may think you’re a great communicator, and all is well. Odds are you have work to do. Open your mind and heart to the possibility: Your employees may be afraid to speak up, and you may not know it. Invest time and energy to improve communication and trust. Set goals. Develop plans. Learn from failure. Celebrate success. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But the investment pays off.
  3. Pour on positive feedback. Praise your people. They’ll trust you more if you recognize their accomplishments. If you constantly criticize and correct, they recoil. They don’t share ideas. They sit on their hands. I’m not talking about throw-away “thank yous.” Acknowledge specifics and praise employees for their good work.
  4. Solicit feedback. Invite employees to share ideas. Insist on it. This may be difficult at first, especially if employees fear speaking up. But if you encourage open communication and respond constructively, employees will step up. A great way to do this: Solicit feedback in writing. People often feel more comfortable sharing ideas in writing when they might not share thoughts out loud. Surveys work, too.
  5. Celebrate ideas and build on them. When someone shares an idea, celebrate. Too often, leaders and their teams respond to ideas with immediate judgment. Somebody will share an idea, and then someone else will throw out a little critique. Those critiques shut people down. They suppress open communication. Instead, treat every idea as a building block. The first idea may not be the best idea, but it’s the most important idea. It starts the conversation. It begins the brainstorm.

In my next post, I’ll dive deeper into brainstorming -- how to do it effectively so you can organize all of those ideas that surface and develop effective strategies and tactics to help your business -- and your employees -- thrive.

Until then…

...if you want to discover strategies and tactics to improve teamwork and communication…

...so your employees work well together and focus on progress, not drama...

...Schedule a Complimentary Strategy Session with me. You and I can discuss your challenges and goals, and I can offer actionable advice to help you.