When employees have nothing to say – by Mary T. O’Sullivan

When employees have nothing to say – maybe it’s your fault

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

What happens when the boss calls a meeting, and no one has anything to contribute? The boss, Jennifer, looks around the table and is met with blank stares. Should she assume that employees have nothing to say simply because they offered no meeting topic suggestions? Would that be a very bad assumption?  Maybe Jennifer, has not established an effective communication style with her subordinates, including her body language, open-door policy (or lack of) and her ability to listen effectively. In addition, Jennifer’s direct reports may see her rank as a supervisor as a barrier to communication, or there may be an unfriendly gatekeeper who exists just to create and maintain a barrier between supervisors and employees.

Let’s assume that Jennifer is in the food service industry, if so, that many of her employees may not be facile in the language and may not speak or write English well enough to communicate directly. Any written communication with her people should specifically ask for questions as a meeting topic, not just make general requests. Her questions should be phrased in an open question style, rather than close questioning. Hopefully, she’s not asking yes and no questions, because she’s less likely to get a complete sentence for an answer. Jennifer could use some coaching in how to ask good questions, and to start her questions with “what, when where, and how”. The word “why” needs to be avoided since it puts the answerer on the defensive. In short, does Jennifer know how to lead other humans? Or is she seeing her people as only “slots” to perform a specific role, and forget that those “slots” are people, too. Just like she is…

When Jennifer asked for suggestions, she received none from her employees. Prior to the meeting, she must do a better job of setting a tone of positive, open communication. She needs to present herself in a non-threatening manner, using typically human behavior, remembering to smile often and use friendly, not hostile gestures. She could even bring in coffee and donuts, muffins or bagels on Fridays. Maybe she could even host a monthly birthday party for people. Wouldn’t that add to her positive image?

For her formal meetings she should provide a relaxed atmosphere, maybe include something to eat and drink, and translators for the non-English speakers. She needs to let her team know she wants better communication and offer real solutions for improving it. Her “gatekeeper” should help her register employee concerns rather than be the barrier to them. Jennifer also has to learn to make direct eye contact with people and extend her in greeting to everyone on a regular basis, and especially when beginning or ending a staff meeting.

Since food preparation areas can be noisy, a quiet area for meetings should be found by her “gatekeeper”. Jennifer and her team would also benefit from individual, one on one personal engagement. She could build more relationships with her employees and even with management, by simply getting out from behind her desk and walking around (Management By Walking Around “MBWA”), Peter Drucker’s theory. Jennifer might even start visiting different sites where she has people reporting to her to continue her desire to improve communication.

And back to those meeting suggestions that she wants, getting people to be comfortable and trusting of her will improve employee interaction. People always feel more willing to participate when they feel that their voices matter. And on the topic of developing her caring and trustworthiness, Jennifer needs to remember her manners and respect others by not talking over them or being rude and speaking at the same time. These helpful hints might open everyone in Jennifer’s group for even more improved communication. Next time, her inbox will be overflowing with discussion topics and valuable suggestion, maybe even unsolicited from her team. And finally put an end to those blank stares when she decides to call a meeting. Leaders need to remember they are leading people, real humans, with all our flaws and human frailties exposed. And when we are exposed, we are vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we can be hurt. If we think we will be hurt, we will be silent. It’s only human.

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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