A coach approach to transitioning your team’s return to work

Using a coach approach with your team members can help them with communication, innovation, self-reliance, confidence, taking responsibility and even with their work relationships. 

Our clients and regular readers of our blog are familiar with what it means to use a coach approach to leadership, but you may not have thought about how you can use it to transition people back to work during these uncertain times.

The pressure is on for us to adapt and keep leading our teams while we all figure out what business is going to look like in the months ahead. Chances are that there are a range of reactions among your team members to returning to workfrom happy and excited to get back into the office to hesitant and worried about health, family and child care.

Many businesses are looking at continuing to have some or all team members work remotely, but when a temporary solution becomes a longer-term reality that is still a change to manage for everyone.

Adding coaching to your leadership toolkit works really well alongside mentoring (guiding by sharing your own experience), directing (telling folks what they need to do) and teaching (showing them how to do something).

Here are some ideas for using coaching to help your team members return to work:

Try having one-to-one conversations with each direct report privately: Reach out to each of your direct reports, asking open-ended questions about their expectations, their doubts, their concerns and their hopes so that you have a good sense of what’s on their minds – the good and the bad. When we start going back to the office, what would you like to see happen? What would you like to see change from before? What concerns you? 

Be a reliable source of information: Ask people what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask about something that you’re not sure about or that you don’t have an answer for, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them.

Reassure your team about uncertainty: It’s very likely that your team members are going to ask you questions relating to things that you have been asking “higher-ups.” If the “higher-ups” aren’t responding or aren’t giving you the info you need, don’t blame them when you’re struggling to answer your team member’s question. Remember no matter how senior and powerful and decisive they may be, they’re human and they’re quite likely struggling with all this uncertainty as much as you are. Instead, respond with something like, “That’s a good question that I’ve also asked. We don’t have the answer yet, but I’m on it and will keep you updated as soon as I know.” 

Learn to be honest about (and comfortable with!) not having all the answers: Believe it, or not, survey after survey shows that employees greatly prefer hearing a boss say they don’t know and will try to find out than having a boss who avoids tough questions, makes up answers that may later change or avoids the conversation entirely. If your view of leadership includes “always having the answers,” it’s essential that you work on this – especially if you want to reassure your team during uncertain times. Now is the perfect time to practise some vulnerability with, “I don’t know, yet” and some empathy with, “but I hear your concern and I’m going to do my best to get answers for all of us.”

Encourage your direct reports to use a coach approach: If your direct reports also have people they manage, at the end of your coach approach conversation with your direct report, encourage them to have similar conversations with their direct reports (and so on and so on). At that time, point out to them some of the things you did in your conversation with them that they might do with their direct reports (or, provide them with a copy of this post and our coach approach to leadership post).

Broaden the discussion: In addition to one-to-one conversations with your direct reports, try holding a virtual town hall with them and their next level down (or further – all the way to an all-staff virtual meeting, depending how many people you can put on your video system). If you don’t have a webinar tool or virtual meeting tool, try Zoom – it has become the most common choice and offers a free version for meetings up to 40 minutes long and accommodates up to 100 participants. During that virtual town hall, have some remarks prepared about what you know and what you’re still working on. Pre-arrange to have someone else on the call take notes for you, in particular, to record things you commit to doing or questions you commit to answering. Ask people for input and for their questions. Remind them that you value the questions to help you make sure you’re addressing the issues and concerns you may not have thought of. Whenever anyone asks you a question, thank them for stepping up to speak (especially if it’s a large group).  

Be as responsive to the group as you are to your direct reports: As with the one-to-one meetings, ask people during a virtual town hall meeting what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask and you’re not sure or you don’t have an answer, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them. When you get an answer (or even a bit of the answer) try to respond personally to the person who asked AND to the group. For example, email Mary in accounting to tell her the response and to thank her again for asking. Then include the answer in an all-staff email update or on the company intranet or post it to the company chat board. Mention the answer in your update at your next leadership team meeting and remind your direct reports to pass along the answer to everyone who reports to them.

Build regular outreach into your calendar: Remind yourself that the one-to-ones with your direct reports (and theirs, with their direct reports) need to be more often right now, not less. Schedule reminders so you don’t miss checking in with your team amid all the other work demands. Additionally, make the virtual town hall conversations a more frequent occurrence and not “one and done” – particularly if you still have folks working remotely some or all of the time.  

Keep the information flowing: Yes, this sounds like a LOT of communicating and perhaps over-communicating but in a time like this, when people are stressed and anxious about returning to work – and answers and the way forward are uncertain – you really can’t overcommunicate. Now, more than ever, your role as a leader is to help others be the best they can be – that means a big part of your day is going to be talking with people, finding out what they need, what they’re worried about and answering questions for them.  If you don’t already schedule that into your day, it now needs to be a priority.

Coach’s Questions

How do you feel about trying a coach approach to help your team members return to work? What benefits do you see from trying it? What’s the first thing you want to try?

What does leading your team look like after a crisis?

Leading through the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging for most of us. 

We’ve made it through the emergency phase and now we’re trying to adapt to this new reality and figure out how to keep business moving forward. It’s tricky (and a new kind of stressful) to reassure our team members in uncertain times.

Now, as we head into reopening businesses beyond essential services in the weeks and months ahead (depending on where you are located), the challenge is figuring out what leading your team will look like after the crisis. 

Many of our clients are feeling the pressure from trying to meet people’s expectations that they will have answers that they have no way of knowing right now. Change is hard for some people even in the best of times, so trying to lead change right now can be particularly fraught with tension.

One of our amazing coaches recently showed me an article about leadership in a permanent crisis that was in the Harvard Business Review. Interestingly, the article was from 2009 and the permanent crisis it was referring to was the economic collapse of 2008. But, while it’s 11 years old and was written in response to an economic crisis, this HBR article has many insights that really resonate during our current global pandemic.

Here are some ideas to help give your team direction even when you’re not sure about how to move forward:

Reset rather than settle for short-term fixes

In times of uncertainty, it’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. Many leaders are tempted to just hunker down and solve problems with short-term fixes. It is possible to get through a crisis by drawing on what we’ve done before. Essentially, this is to make it through so we can then continue our old ways.

The challenge is that the skills that brought many of us to senior leadership roles – analytical problem solving, confident decision making, articulating clear and decisive direction – can get in the way of success – particularly in times of enormous uncertainty.  Those skills might be helpful in the early moments of a crisis but relying on them keeps us in “hunker down” mode. They help us survive the crisis, but they don’t help us reset. 

Why is that a potential problem? The HBR article uses a heart attack as a brilliant analogy. If you have a heart attack and are saved through the heroic measures of EMTs and cardiology experts, you have survived the initial emergency by the experts carefully doing what they’ve always been trained to do.  They get you through the initial crisis. However, if you breathe a sigh of relief and go back to your usual ways of eating, not exercising, etc., you will have won the battle but not the war. Unless you know how to prevent another heart attack by adapting your diet and exercise then the crisis is far from over. 

Now is the time for adaptive agile leadership. We can use the turbulence to build on and reset. This might include changing key rules of the game, reshaping parts of the organization and redefining the work people do. This isn’t a “reorg” for the sake of shaking things up because conservation is as much a part of a reset as change. Nevertheless, there will be losses. EMPATHY WILL BE ESSENTIAL because you need people’s help (but not their blind loyalty).

Embracing Conflict

Maintaining the right balance of urgency and criticality, without pushing people past their capacity, also requires depersonalizing conflict. This is a topic we talk about a lot at Padraig.

There has to be a lot of conflict around ideas and challenging each other’s thinking if we’re to change the culture, shift patterns, adapt our leadership thoughts and style. This requires depersonalizing conflict and building productive conflict in the workplace

The aim is to disagree on issues and challenge each other to broader thinking, different thinking while trusting each other to not make it personal, nor to take it personally. You have to understand the interests behind a perspective – the fears, aspirations and the loyalties that are being maintained and the factions that have formed. All of that requires knowing each other and using emotional intelligence.

A critical part of emotional intelligence is vulnerability, which helps to build trust. Building vulnerability-based trust is essential to depersonalize conflict. 

Find your sea legs

If you’ve ever been on board a ship, especially on stormy seas, you know that a regular gait won’t help you navigate on deck. You have to adapt your walk to the rise and fall of the waves if you don’t want to fall over. Similarly, in these uncertain times, we have to embrace disequilibrium and find a new way forward.

Difficult change generally requires sparking urgency in folks – but too much distress can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response – and we don’t want any of those. It’s a fine line of maintaining urgency and criticality, while not freaking people out. It can be helpful to remember and to remind your staff that while we’ll be operating outside our comfort zone, it’s not outside our capable zone.

Building on disequilibrium also means shifting from grand and detailed strategic plans to instead running numerous experiments of what might work going forward, given our new and uncertain future. 

An idea we like and that you might consider as you review your plan for going forward, is that a strategic plan should be less a collection of goals and more a collection of hypotheses. That’s an idea that first began circulating in earnest in 2017 after articles from Amy Edmondson and Paul Verdin, both professors of management. 

It might sound like a simple shift in wording but the idea brings a change of mindset.  When you’re struggling to map out the short- and medium-term when everything feels so uncertain, it somehow feels easier, and smarter, to draft some hypotheses you’re going to explore and work toward (and adjust, as needed) then to pronounce on goals you’re going to achieve. And yet, it still gives plenty of guidance to your staff, on where you’re trying to go and how you’re thinking of getting there.

Edmondson and Verdin call this approach “strategy as learning,” which contrasts sharply with the view of strategy as a stable, analytically rigorous plan for execution in the market. Strategy as learning is an executive activity characterized by ongoing cycles of testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through trial.

Perhaps what is most striking is what Edmondson and Verdin call the key indicator of a strategy-as-learning approach which is, how managers interpret early signs of gaps between results and plans. Are the gaps seen as evidence that people are underperforming and that we’re failing? Or as data that indicates some initial assumptions were flawed or have since become flawed (perhaps because of the arrival of a global pandemic, for example), triggering amendments and further refinement?

Build leadership in others

Building leadership is a critical task of leaders at all times, but never more so than in a crisis and following a crisis. An important strategy for adaptive leadership is to find and build strength throughout the organization, rather than keeping the hierarchical status quo to eventually breathe a sigh of relief that the crisis is over.  

Organizations that adapt in a crisis usually succeed not through one brilliant new initiative dreamed up at HQ, but rather through multiple smaller ideas, hypotheses, experiments and adaptations by people throughout the organization. That means mobilizing everyone, encouraging people to try new things with common sense and analysis, without fear of being criticized for trying.  

This means leaders have to let go of their own sense of obligation that they must be all and do all and get comfortable sharing the burden, being vulnerable, saying, “I don’t know but I’d appreciate your insight.” It means finding the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them.

As leaders, our primary goals become ensuring information is being shared, ideas are being discussed and new initiatives are attempted. The goal is for folks at all levels of the organization to feel supported, trusted and to take ownership, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, for creating value in the organization.

Take care of yourself first

We’ve all heard it on a flight: “put your own mask on first, before helping another person.” This is based on the rather obvious, but often forgotten idea, that if you aren’t healthy and functioning, or if you don’t survive the crisis, then you have no hope of helping others to survive.

Find a friend, mentor or coach with whom you can speak frankly, honestly and directly – to share your fears, explore ideas and sometimes to rant, rave or let yourself go. Ideally this isn’t someone in your organization who may someday end up facing you with an opposite view or a conflicting priority. The key in choosing someone for this particular role is that they care more about you than about the issues you’re raising. 

Find a retreat – somewhere you can be alone with your thoughts from time to time.  I don’t mean booking a week-long retreat at a spa ranch — though if you can manage that, then all the power to you. But, if you’re home during the pandemic, sharing space with a spouse, kids, parents, pets – maybe your retreat is the bathroom, maybe it’s the garage or perhaps a walk around the block. Visit your retreat space from time to time to ask yourself questions a coach might ask you, such as – “How am I feeling?” “Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I pushing others too hard?” “Am I pushing enough to keep us on a path forward?” “Am I being the leader I want to be through this?” “Am I building other leaders by being open, honest and vulnerable with my staff and peers?” etcetera.

Ask yourself if you’re being optimistic or pessimistic, are you being realistic or cynical? Try asking yourself, “If I were being optimistic and still realistic, without letting myself become pessimistic and cynical, what would I be thinking about this situation? What would I be doing about it?”

Coach’s Questions

We’ve thrown a lot of ideas and a lot of questions at you today. What resonates for you? What can you start doing to prepare yourself and your team for what the future months hold?

An attitude of gratitude for dealing with uncertainty

Feeling overwhelmed and gripped by fear, worry and uncertainty? Trying to navigate this new reality thanks to COVID-19? You’re not alone.

One of the most important things we can all do for our mental health is to develop an attitude of gratitude. If that sounds too simple when you’re struggling with working from home, working on the frontlines, being laid off and all the other challenges related to this quarantine life, please hear me out.

Finding things that we’re thankful for during a global pandemic might seem strange, but gratitude helps us to be resilient and find hope.

When we can do that, it helps us deal with stress and anxiety, and that in turn helps us with our mental health and even our physical health – science has proven that stress is a huge drain on our immune systems.

You may not be feeling gratitude right now, and that’s okay.

Start by practicing gratitude, by noticing the things you feel grateful for and building time for a gratitude meditation into your daily routine. As with all skills, the more we practice gratitude, the more it becomes a habit. Some folks find it helpful to think of three things they’re grateful for when they start and end the day.

(Pro tip: Try starting your day by thinking of three things you’re grateful for BEFORE you check the news on your phone. They can be small, simple things like enjoying a hot cup of tea or coffee or having a hot shower – or they could include bigger things like your relationships, work and unique skills or abilities.)

If you like making lists, you’ll probably find it very satisfying to start a gratitude list. Others might find it very helpful to keep a gratitude journal. (And if you’re never tried journaling, consider starting a journal now because our coaches will tell you it’s the one leadership habit you can’t live without!)

Here are five reasons why and how an attitude of gratitude can help us face uncertainty:

  • We can’t control what’s happening, but we can control how we respond to everything. At Padraig, that’s one of our mantras. I think this is best explained with shifting perspective from being STUCK at home to being SAFE at home. Words and context are powerful, so if we can reframe things more positively, it helps us cope. Instead of focusing on the worst news or how the worst leaders are handling things, think about the way researchers around the globe are working together to figure out this virus, how to best respond to it and to develop a vaccine. Consider all of the heroes and helpers in this time of crisis and what they’ve done to make a difference. As leaders, we can show confidence in the talent and skills of our team members to solve problems and tackle challenges together. We can share a word of thanks and a compliment. What can you control about your attitude right now? What could you do to help someone?
  • This is temporary. It’s harder to deal with situations that don’t have definitive end dates, but we will get through the pandemic. Things might be different going forward, but we’ll figure it out. If you watch the news or engage with social media, you’ll see stories celebrating the simple joys like people reconnecting with family and friends online or banging pots and pans to celebrate frontline workers. Some folks are enjoying slower starts to the day, a return to writing letters and many have adopted rescue dogs or cats. What are some positives you will remember from this time? You might want to add those to your gratitude journal so you can look back later and remember the good things. Take it one step further, what can you do to make some more good memories?
  • Sometimes it takes a crisis to see the best of humanity. Many arts organizations and musicians are sharing their creative gifts with the world for free, like this beautiful cover of Lean on Me by Canadian musicians. People are sharing love with family, neighbours and friends with “ding-dong-dash” deliveries of home-baked goodies and groceries. Some neighbourhoods have decorated their windows with hearts or hidden painted rocks so that children and families can enjoy scavenger hunt walks. What ways have you noticed people caring for each other and the community? What could you do, no matter how small, to make a difference?
  • It’s possible to train our brains. In times of anxiety or stress, our thoughts can run amok and usually tend to head toward the future. Take a deep breath and focus on the present. Re-label and reframe those negative feelings so you’re not just focusing on the worst-case scenarios. Ground yourself with the 3-3-3 rule of finding three things you see, three things you hear and three things you can touch. That’s a common technique to step back from anxiety. Then think of three things you are thankful for. Calming down that fight-or-flight response helps to reduce feelings of anxiety and make it easier for us to be positive and build an abundant mindset. Sometimes examining facts and focusing on what we do know (instead of what we don’t know) helps us to “de-catastrophize” our perception of a situation. How can I rewrite the script that’s playing in my head? What can I feel good about right now?
  •  Positivity is contagious. It’s hard to be positive if you’re surrounded by negativity. Reach out to your circle via social media, an email or a group call and ask everyone to share what they’re thankful for right now. It’s very uplifting to share reasons for gratitude. Connecting with other people is also a way to naturally boost all those feel-good hormones, so nurturing a digital community is important during this time of isolation. Think about not only group chats but watching online concerts, having online parties or streaming a funny comedy show or movie (laughter is the best medicine!). Because coworkers, friends and family members are probably feeling the strain from things, too, make an effort to offer supportive responses and contribute positive topics of conversation. What are those around me grateful for? What inspires me to gratitude or makes me feel grateful, too?

Even as we weather this crisis, there are still moments when we can find joy, comfort and even have fun. If we work on an attitude of gratitude, we can keep our spirits up (and the spirits of those we lead!) and have the mindset to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Coach’s Questions: 

What questions above really resonated for you?? What can you do to help yourself practice gratitude? What can you do to help others see the good?


What does being productive mean right now?

Most of us around the world are staying home right now, trying to minimize the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are still working or have transitioned to working from home, some have been laid off and some are working on the frontlines.

And everywhere on social media and internet sites, we’re barraged with social media posts, articles and ads on ways to stay busy and use this time productively. 

Reactions to what I’ve heard called “productivity porn” vary, from:

Encouraged and inspired: Some people are up to the challenge, happy to pack their days full of things to do, challenges to undertake and new things to learn. Carpe diem!

Ambivalent: Others might celebrate what others are doing but are content or laugh at themselves for staying in pyjamas all day or binge-watching TV. Is it wine o’clock? What day is it? 

Pressured: Some folks are feeling defeated, like they’re failing at taking advantage of this time to do incredible things. What’s wrong with me that I can’t do more? Why am I wasting this time?

Exhausted: I want to be doing more but I just can’t bring myself to get to it. Where is everyone finding the energy for this stuff?

How you’re feeling right now could depend on many things, like whether you’re working from home or suddenly out of work, if you have young children or other loved ones to care for or if you’re in a stable and loving relationship with a partner, if you’re trying to get along with a household of people, or alone, if you’re staying home or working on the frontlines and whether your physical and mental health was strong before the lockdown.

In addition to our unique circumstances, our personality styles factor into how we manage through self isolation. We can’t fall into comparing ourselves to others or judging people who respond differently than we do – yet many of us do just that, don’t we?

Productivity isn’t the right measure for us right now

We are in the midst of a pandemic. Being productive is often really challenging for people when times are good, so it’s okay to not be okay during a global crisis.

Be wary of feeling that you have to be more productive, live up to your expectations of what productive used to look like or live up to anyone else’s ideas of what being productive is.

While productivity is a great measure for a machine or a business, is it the right measure for us as people – especially in a crisis? What does it mean to succeed or thrive right now? What if you’re #nailingit if you’re managing only the essentials?

Time is relative

I have heard from many clients that they thought they would have EXTRA time when they weren’t commuting, working regular 9 to 5 workdays or ferrying children to extracurricular activities. Some had ideas of all the new and additional things they would add to their days (especially those of us who love lists and promote the use of them in normal times) – and now we feel like we’ve LOST time.

Extra time is elusive when you’re dealing with uncertainty, adapting to working remotely (or the stress of working on the frontlines) and figuring out this new reality, which has changed everything from schooling kids to getting groceries. Nothing is normal right now.

It’s like when we’re driving to a new destination and the route there seems really long because we don’t know for sure where we’re going, so our senses are heightened and we’re a bit anxious. On the way home it feels very different – shorter – because we know what to expect. 

Similarly, our sense of how long we’ve been in suspended production is not accurate because we haven’t made it through. Just dealing with uncertainty and worry is tiring and distracting. Do you HAVE to take on bonus tasks and extra things if it’s a stress for you? Or is it okay to just pay attention to getting there safely, fed and rested?

Determine for yourself what to value

What if making the most of this time is taking care of ourselves and those we care about? We’ve talked before about how contemporary culture has a fixation on being busy. But being too busy is counterproductive, resulting in burnout and sacrificing personal life for corporate accomplishments.

Given that society has glorified this idea of overworking in recent years, particularly in North America (“How are you?” “Oh, busy!”), it’s not surprising that one response to having to quarantine and stay home has been to fill every second of time with achieving and overachieving. But resting quietly is valuable and necessary – everything has its season.

If your glass is already full, adding even one more drop will be too much. You want to fill it to where it’s comfortable for you. 

What will help you manage could be very different from every other person you care about and that’s okay. Learning to knit could be calming and distract you from worrying about COVID-19. Learning a language or being creative could be a wonderful way to occupy your time if you’re feeling lonely. Or, cuddling with your dog and sipping a cup of tea while you watch the sunrise could be just what you need.

Setting work goals during self isolation

Many of us are still working right now, remotely or as essential workers. We do still have to deliver things for others to be able to do their work. If you’re finding it a challenge to get through what you need to do, this could be helpful:

  • Write out your weekly goals first, then go through the list and remove everything that isn’t actually essential – everything that you think “oh, I should,” leaving only “yes, I must.”  Then break down the steps to help you achieve them.
  • Next, pull out another piece of paper and write down the things you’re thankful for in this pandemic. Pro tip: one of those things might become, “I gave myself permission to rest,” or “I accepted that resting my mind was good for my health.”
  • Finding an accountability partner can be very helpful, especially if you’re new to working from home or feeling overwhelmed. Talk to a friend, or trusted colleague – not the person you’re trying to be like, but someone you trust, someone who gets you and yet will be willing to do what you ask of them – and then ask them to check in on your progress.
  • Review our strategies for staying focused in spite of distractions – especially the Pomodoro Technique, which is simple and very effective (focus for 25 minutes, break for 5 and then repeat until your to-do list is done). Adapt the Pomodoro to your situation. For example, first of all – the 5-minute break has to be a break. Sip a tea and look out the window, put in some earphones and listen to soft music with your eyes closed, do a short meditation, get up and walk around the block.  If you are also caring for others, build in caring for them as part of a 25-minute block NOT as part of a 5-minute break.
  • The other ideas for staying focused will also help if you’re struggling to quiet your mind – or perhaps other humans if you’re working from home.

Changing our ideas of what being productive means right now will help us get through this pandemic – and maybe even improve our approach to work and personal life in years to come. 

Coach’s Questions

Have you felt stressed about being productive during the pandemic? Have your thoughts about productivity changed? What are you going to try this week? What are you doing to let go of this week?

8 tips for encouraging team members to speak up at work

If you’ve ever worked in a fractious or toxic work environment, you know how difficult it can be to speak up at work. 

Hushed and guarded conversations. Uncertainty about who to trust. Dread about retribution for those who dare to raise concerns. Worrying about the future of your career. In the worst cases, a pervasive sense of fear and not even daring to ask for permission to speak freely.

We’ve seen exactly this scenario emerge in recent years with Google, which as it grew from a handful of like-minded techies to 10,000 employees to upwards of 100,000 seemed to forget about its own “don’t be evil” motto as leaders went after more and more business at any cost.

speak up at work

The company that once had incredibly high ratings for employee satisfaction and employee engagement ended up facing high-profile news reports when staff and contractors around the globe walked off the job on November 1, 2018, to protest Google’s corporate culture.

Worldwide, news agencies reported how Google staffers and contractors shared complaints about the way contract workers were treated, sexism, sexual harassment (including paying male executives millions in exit packages – without addressing inappropriate behavior), racism, unethical behavior and engaging in business practices that put profits ahead of human rights.

In January of this year, Ross LaJeunesse wrote an article for Medium that detailed why he left his role as Google’s Head of International Relations. His article is one of the most personal accounts validating the concerns of those Googlers who walked off the job.

In 2010, LaJeunesse was instrumental in Google’s courageous and ethical decision not to censor search results in China. But by 2017, the company was involved in creating a new search engine for China named “Dragonfly” that would facilitate censorship.

The company that had once held firm to upholding human rights was also very interested in doing Cloud business with the government of Saudi Arabia — known for its terrible track record on human rights — and the Cloud executives didn’t want LaJeunesse’s Human Rights team involved in any of it. There were also ethically questionable Artificial Intelligence projects being brokered in China and for US military purposes.

LaJeunesse describes how Google’s workplace culture deteriorated to the point that senior staff were abusive toward young women team members and frequently blatantly racist, homophobic and sexist. 

As a Google manager who was part of their elite executive pool, LaJeunesse says he repeatedly raised his concerns with both Human Resources and senior executives. Over and over, nothing was investigated. 

One day, a senior HR director copied LaJeunesse on an email by accident in which the director was asking someone else to “do some digging” on LaJeunesse because he was bringing up so many issues (rather than asking someone to look into the problems being raised!).

How does a company that prided itself on upholding human rights and offering a safe and respectful workplace end up in such a different place in such a short time?

What helps other companies stay true to a mission without compromising ethics?

How do you create (and sustain!) a company culture that is inclusive and respectful of diversity?

8 strategies to encourage your team to speak up

Here are some strategies leaders can use to build a strong culture that prevents these kinds of problems:

  • Look inward and check your biases. If you tend to think, “Oh, this person is always raising problems and they’re so negative” is it possible that while that may be true, they might be right on this one?
  • Make an effort to be objective. Step back from the situation and consider whether you are making assumptions (pro tip: try our Ladder of Assumptions tool). You might be surprised to realize that you’re reading into things or there is some other misunderstanding.
  • Engage with the staff who are raising concerns. In addition to really listening to what they have to say about the problems they’re bringing to you, ask for their insight into reasonable solutions.
  • Don’t add to the problem. Pointing fingers, being negative or talking badly about people who speaking up at work about something that troubles them will not improve anything — but it will probably shut down any discussion (on this concern and on future ones). If you have to vent, find someone you can really trust (like a mentor or coach) to help you turn the venting into constructive actions or journal about your feelings. 
  • Presume that people speaking up at work have good intentions. It’s easy to start with a different presumption. Instead, try to see things from their perspective. What is important to them in this situation? Why is it important to them? Be curious and ask questions.
  • Gather facts. There are always different sides to every story (and the truth, if there is one truth, may lie somewhere in the middle).
  • Ask for input from others. Be careful that you’re not just soliciting input from those you know will agree with you — even if you’re wrong!
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. You might learn some disheartening facts, but you’re gathering information. You might sometimes have to deal with difficult employees who are creating dissent or stirring up trouble, but generally being receptive to hearing the good and the bad is very important if you want people to continue to be honest with you. 

Watch for our next blog on June 2, when we continue to explore how to eliminate fears of speaking up at work by reviewing some strategies that foster a culture of open feedback. 

Coach’s Questions:

Have you ever hesitated to share your opinion about something for fear of retribution? Do you think your team members ever fear speaking up at work? What can you do to help eliminate fears and encourage people to speak frankly?