420 — Trust: People Won’t Speak Up at Meetings

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I am a Logistics Manager at a bulky waste removal & recycling company. I manage guys in the field as well as the day-to-day stuff of the company. Every Monday (without fail) I hold a meeting to “get stuff on the table” as well as motivate the guys. I seem, though, to be running out of things to go over with them. The job is not complex, but does require labor and common sense as well as customer service. The guys are great. I have no complaints. I just can’t seem to find anything to go over continually with them. When I ask them what I can do to help them, or any suggestions, my questions are returned with answers of “Everything’s fine” or “No Complaints”. I constantly extend my appreciation for the wonderful job that they do daily, and do not take them for granted. I tried a motivational video, but it was extremely complex. I want to present fun, exciting things for them, so they can get amped up. I want them to view their day-to-day activities as challenges. Do you have any ideas?? I would appreciate anything that you can think of.
Thanks so much!

Silence in Meetings  A Common Problem

Dear Darlene,

I want to congratulate you on holding regular meetings. Even if people stay silent, keep it up.

The problem you face, getting the guys to talk up, is very common. I have spent many hours with groups of first-line employees in the recycling business. I think I know just what you are talking about. You have to be very patient and persistent. Eventually some of them will speak out, and that will be enough. There will always be some who will remain silent, and that’s OK.

There are two topics I have used to get people to speak up — and eventually “amped up” as you say. One area is Safety — “What can we do to make things safer around here?” The other area is Improvements — “What can we do to make things work better around here?” or, “What would make your job simpler and easier?”

Use the Four-Step Decision Process

I like to use the four-step decision process. The first step is “Describing the Situation, Issue, or Problem”. You might tell the group at one Monday meeting that at the next meeting you want to talk about any issue they have, or might want to discuss in the areas of Safety, Improvements, Problems, Making Work Easier, or Anything Else that is important to them. Tell them than next Monday you want to make a list of all the things they can think of, the longer the better.

Set the Stage.

During the week, talk individually with as many crew members as you can about the upcoming meeting and their work experiences. You might even consider doing one or two “Interviews” every week. Do what you can to encourage them to think about issues and problems before the meeting, and to understand that you value their experience and ideas, that you do want them to speak up at the meeting. Don’t wait until the meeting. Do a lot of one-on-one preparation. Lay the groundwork.

Use a Flip Chart

I always use a flip chart in these meetings to write-down what people have to say. Flip charts may seem low-tech or old fashioned, but they fit well with many field situations. Without publicly recording what each person says, too much is lost, and people may not believe that you really heard what they said.

Use their own words and check with them to make sure you got their idea correctly. I usually go around the group, one person at a time, so that everybody knows I will be asking him or her to speak up. Only allow one idea per person until everyone has had a chance to speak. Otherwise one or two people will dominate, and everyone else’s mind will go out the window. There is no hiding, everyone will be asked, and anything that is said will be written down, including negative comments. (That really gets people’s attention when you write-down negative comments, including cuss words. When you do that they know you are really serious about listening and valuing what they have to say. It also makes people laugh, which always helps.) Whatever anyone says is OK. I don’t make any comment about what people say except, “Did I get that right?” and, “Anything else to add?” and “Next!”

One Step at a Time

It is quite enough at one meeting to make a list of the issues, or problems, or situations. You might even say that, “Today we will just list issues. Next week we will look at your suggestions to change them.” I recommend that at the end of your meeting you do a quick Plus-Delta. This is the best way to improve meetings and show people that you value their suggestions. Start the next meeting by putting the Plus Delta sheet on the wall. Say what you have done to keep the good parts and make the changes they suggested.

If you use a flip chart, you can help the group and yourself by saying something open, inviting, and candid, e.g. “I’m new at this and I don’t spell very well. When I make a mistake, those of you who are good spellers, please tell me. I’ll need your help to make this work. This is new for all of us.”

Connect to Job Security

You might discuss the idea that constant improvement is essential for the company to stay in business, and for them to keep their jobs. The competition is always becoming more efficient and so must your company. It’s not just about efficiency. It’s about making everything work more smoothly and easily for them, and having fun doing it. They are closest to the job and maybe to customers. They know what needs to be done. Your job is to help them say what they know and act on it.

Dealing With Difficult People

Sometimes groups have one or two people who intimidate everybody else into acting sullen and hostile. These people discourage cooperation with management. They are afraid of being open but their fear is hidden to them. They act it out by mocking those who speak up and cooperate. These are the employees who are so toxic that the work group would be better off paying them to stay home.

With a little luck these sullen naysayers will eventually turn around, or leave, when other members of the group take them aside at a break, or even in a meeting, and tell him that they have had enough of their negative behavior, “Knock it off!” Peer pressure is more effective than anything you could ever do as a manager. All you need to do is keep providing the opportunity for people to be open, participative, and cooperative.

Rely on Your People — They Want You to Succeed

If people in your group are not speaking up and participating, it is not because they don’t want to. Almost everybody wants to be an active and valued member off his or her work group, to have a good day, and to go home feeling that he or she has been productive and constructive. If you are persistent you will tap into this basic human desire. People want to have a great workplace. They will eventually get on the train — as long as you keep the door open.

cc 420 — Barry Phegan, Ph.D.