Employees need a non-combative, relaxed atmosphere to voice their concerns or express ideas they have for making something better or safer.

Many companies leave this to human resources. However, HR is not always in tune with how other departments operate. That isn’t to say they are unable to help. But because HR is more about policy and payroll rather than a place to generate ideas, HR isn’t always the best place to turn to. Yet that is the department organizations tend to direct their employees.

Employees need to have confidence their complaints will not unsettle their employment status or cause needless persecution. They need a “safe” space and people whom they trust. If they cannot trust their managers, then concerns are never spoken and the problem only worsens.

And the same goes for ideas. Organizations that thrive are the ones who give their employees opportunity to share ideas and suggestions. They welcome their employees’ valuable input. They put “team” back into teamwork. They listen to the engineers and the ones who work directly with the product and the people. The companies then build better products, offer quality services, and experience financial growth, due to the value their talented employees provide.

However, this is not the case for every company. Problems worsen over time if they are not handled properly. And people with great ideas take them to another company who will listen.

How can we open the door, so to speak, to give employees an opportunity to speak up? How can we create a safe environment for them to share ideas? And finally, what can we do to show them they are being heard?

Art of listening

Some people feel they are good listeners. They may have taken classes and training, or attended seminars to help them become better speakers, which might improve their ability to listen. They have conversations that to them, seem to go well.

But such thinking is shortsighted.

The downfall to this belief is the idea that one has already mastered this tricky art. In reality, we all must constantly hone this skill and recognize we will get better over time, but we’ll never have it exactly right.

Being a good listener, as a leader, manager or executive, is imperative to working with our employees and helping the business to run smoothly.

Listening takes patience. We must show our employees and others we listen to them when we turn away from our computer, set aside our phone, and avoid other interruptions. Look directly at the speaker. Acknowledge his/her statements by repeating what was said to make sure you also understand.

“If I understand you correctly, you said, ‘The team has encountered a challenge with X and you’ve exhausted your options,’ is that right?”

Ask questions in a non-abrasive way. You can acknowledge the positive before digging deeper with your questions.

“Thank you for sharing this with me and explaining the options you explored. I noticed one option you left out. Have you tried Y? If so, what was the result?”

Avoid interrupting. Allow the speaker to finish. Our facial expression and body language are also a dead giveaway in how well we’re paying attention.

Take note: If, during the conversation, your mind begins to drift and you think about what you are going to say in reply or how you would handle the situation differently, then you are not listening to the speaker.

Our facial expression and body language are a dead giveaway

in how well we’re paying attention.

A safe place

We all desire to be heard without becoming ingrained in a confrontation. Granted, some topics are not easy, especially when a team encounters a problem. But if you want to know where the heart of the issue lies, the best way to open the conversation toward a meaningful solution is to create a safe atmosphere.

The atmosphere begins with you. As mentioned above, facial expressions and body language can either put people at ease or make them tense. Are you approachable? You can tell this by the speaker. Does he look tense or relaxed? Try to ease his burden by softening your tone, smiling and inviting the speaker to sit or join you for coffee.

Employees especially need to know that whatever they say will not negatively affect their jobs. If you truly want to know the issues employees are facing, and you want to strengthen employee loyalty, then they need to know that sharing their ideas or concerns will help in that goal, not get them fired. They build this trust when they experience positive results from previous conversations, and from observing the results of co-workers’ aired grievances.

Another way to help employees freely share ideas is for them to see their own managers solicit concepts and viewpoints in the presence of their supervisors, perhaps during a team meeting. All members of leadership need to set the example and show support for free expression.

Employees build trust in the company and managers

when they experience positive results from previous

conversations, and from observing the results

of co-workers’ aired grievances.

Tools for employees

Organizations have a variety of means for employee communications. The tools you use depend on your company. Whether it’s a company forum, survey or team meetings, the goal is to give employees a voice.

Some tools allow for anonymity. The upside to anonymity means employees can speak freely without fear of repercussion. You can learn things about your company that might be brewing and need to be addressed.

The downside to anonymity means you don’t always get the full picture. If they aren’t required to attach their name to a grievance and therefore, do not assume responsibility, people often spout in a way they never would in front of someone else. They allow emotions to cloud sound judgment, and they don’t provide background on the root of the issue. Because of this, you cannot approach the person to get these missing details.

That’s why, as stated above, it’s important to create a safe, non-combative atmosphere for employees to express themselves.

Make sure you ask the right questions and in a way that will not point fingers of blame. Keep the conversations on topic so that emotions do not obscure the issues.

Whatever tools you use for communication, be certain they will allow you to understand the entire story so you can target what’s working and what isn’t, and make better decisions for the company.

Keep the conversations on topic

so that emotions do not obscure the issues.

Taking action

An effective way for employees to know they are being heard is to see that their concerns or ideas are being acted upon. When employees are able to share their ideas in a safe place and they see those ideas are being used and are benefiting the team and company, they will be more apt to continue sharing their ideas. Even better, they will build trust in their company.

The key is to foster an environment of learning and growth. We all make mistakes and frankly, those mistakes help us with future decisions when we learn from them. Conversations should be frank and open. Organizations today are keen on touting “transparency.” Are your employee conversations conducive to being transparent without hostility trailing closely behind?

One great idea strengthens other great ideas. But how will we know those ideas exist if never expressed?

Not all ideas will be used. Not all challenges will be solved. But knowing that some ideas will be used and some challenges can be solved, will allow everyone to build camaraderie and strengthen our teams.

Employees want to know they are contributing to something great when they are in a routine at work and focusing on important tasks. What they want to know and trust even more is that they have a network of people behind them who have confidence in them.

The action you take – as an organization and as a leader – will be what shows employees that you are indeed listening to them.