3 signs your employees are afraid to talk to you 

Consider me your millennial whisperer. It’s official, those of us between 22 and 38 make up the majority of today’s workforce. Pretty soon, the “Zoomers” (Generation Z) will be following close behind. As bold and “woke” as some of us claim to be, we are still riddled with fear; we still need your help.

Thankfully, many of you reading this have already gotten the memo that command-and-control styles of management are pretty much out the window these days. Vulnerable, agile, people-positive leaders are the ones we want to work for. 

Over a seven-year study,  Brené Brown and her team found that for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation, we need braver leaders and we need more courageous cultures. The answer saturated across hundreds of interviews, all senior leaders, dozens of industries. 

The No. 1 barrier to courageous leadership is our inability to have tough conversations. 

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a local bartender on Franklin Street in downtown Tampa.

After telling this man about my work with leaders he leaned over, pointed down the bar toward a group of men and whispered, “That’s my boss. He owns this place and always brings his clients and friends to the bar for free drinks. Look, he pays the bills so that’s all fine and good, but he never tips me and they usually keep me here after hours.” I could empathize with how annoyed he was. 

After a short reflection, he sighed, “What can I do? Just walk up to him and tell him? I need this job; I don’t want to get fired!”

I wanted to reach across the bar and grab him by the collar. “Yes! Tell him how you feel! Explain your frustration about leaving after hours and also express your gratitude for working here. Ask him if you can add a blanket 20% gratuity every time he brings clients to the bar. He will understand. There’s an entire spectrum of outcomes and the absolute worst-case scenario is you have to find another job.”

The approach is everything. I spend a lot of time teaching individual contributors on how to skill-up in tough conversations with their managers. But as leaders, it’s important to remember that “the contract” of employment goes both ways. 

As justified as you feel it might be, fear might be getting in the way of good work and, ultimately, success. Here are three signs your employees are afraid to talk to you: 

1. They never ask questions. Think about the last time you delegated an assignment or task to someone. If they asked a clarifying question, how did that make you feel? Did you find them incompetent? Research shows we trust people more who ask questions more. It puts us at ease when we can further define what success looks like, at the same time getting a sense that the person we asked to complete the task has a deeper understanding. 

When your employee, or team member, never asks questions, this may be an indication they’re afraid to talk to you. They’re in self-protection mode and trying to be perfect.

Why it matters: Research shows perfectionism hampers achievement. It’s correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and missed opportunities. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any more of those things my life, or business, right about now. 

2. You don’t know much about their personal lives or professional aspirations. While everyone has their comfort levels with authenticity, we’re moving more and more towards cultures where bringing your whole self, and whole heart, is more acceptable than it is not. If you continue to talk with, or see, the same employee on a Zoom call each week but don’t know what makes them tick, show up every day, or what they aspire to be when they grow up, there’s work to be done there. Dig deeper, be real, be a human being. If they’re good talent, you’ll thank yourself for it. If they’re not, you’ll see that too. 

3. They don’t talk to you when given the opportunity. This one seems pretty obvious but awkward silence is awkward for a reason. I’m not advocating for meaningless small talk, but when you’re the only ones on a call, and it’s completely silent (or I’ve had this happen, they turn the video off) this may be an indication your employee or team member is afraid to talk to you. Many executives have told me they don’t understand the fear that comes from their title, status or paygrade—still, it is real, it is palpable. The culture of your organization consists of many talented individuals who will respond to you differently; it’s your lifeblood, don’t forget that. Your success depends on your awareness, cultivation and intentional massaging of this culture. Understand that when your employees and team members are afraid to talk to you, it’s not just their problem but yours and your customers as well. ♦

Kim Linton is the owner of 1Light Daring Leadership & Facilitation. She works with individuals, and teams, who want to make work modern, courageous and intentional. She is a certified “Dare to Lead” facilitator and provides agile, repeatable, profitable solutions for teams. Reach her at [email protected] and see more at weare1light.com.

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