Breaking the ’Safe Silence’: How to Build a Culture Where People Share Their (Good) Ideas

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Does your company have a positive culture of conversation — a culture where employees are free to voice ideas, find solutions, and innovate?

Many employers believe they do and are often confused by the lack of problem-solving ideas coming from their teams. Why the disconnect?

The answer may surprise you. According to our recent research in conjunction with the University of Northern Colorado’s Social Research Lab, 49 percent of employees say they don’t share their ideas because “no one asked.” This frustrates executives who have open-door policies and state-of-the-art suggestion systems.

But that’s not the only reason why employees aren’t speaking up: 40 percent of respondents also said they lack the confidence to share their ideas.

Whatever the driving force behind it, the fallout of this disconnect is serious: problems multiply, productivity declines, and employees check out.

Overcoming ‘Safe Silence’

It takes more than a generic “How can we improve?” to draw out your team’s best ideas. That’s because your team members have questions of their own:

  1. Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
  2. Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
  3. Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
  4. Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?

These concerns — and previous bad experiences with leaders who didn’t really want input — lead many people to default to “safe silence.” Rather than speaking up, people keep their heads down to avoid trouble. If you want to free your employees’ best ideas from the prison of safe silence, you need to address these concerns.

There are two techniques you can use to draw out your team’s best ideas: Asking courageous questions and teaching employees the IDEA framework for positioning their ideas.

Asking Courageous Questions

A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways.

First, a courageous question focuses on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome. For example, rather than asking “How can we improve?” ask “What is the No. 1 frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?”

Second, a courageous question creates powerful vulnerability. When you ask a courageous question, you are implicitly saying, “I know I’m not perfect. I know I can improve.” This is a strong message — if you sincerely mean it.

When you send the message that you are growing and want to improve, you give your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. You also make it safe to share real feedback. When you ask “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.

Finally, courageous questions require the asker to listen without defensiveness. This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they aren’t prepared to hear feedback. When you ask a courageous question, you have to allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, then thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspectives.

For more expert HR insights, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

Here are a few sample courageous questions to get you started and unlock your team’s best ideas:

  1. What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
  2. What do we do that really annoys our customers?
  3. What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
  4. What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
  5. What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
  6. What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
  7. What are you most afraid of with this program/project/process?
  8. What is the biggest source of conflict you’re having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
  9. What is sabotaging our success?

The IDEA Framework

Of course, you don’t just want ideas — you want good ideas. There’s no time for half-baked solutions to trivial problems. But if you stop listening, people will stop sharing, and you’ll miss the good ideas.

How you respond to incomplete, off-base, or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether or not you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time.

Several executives, when they heard about our research, told us, “Oh, that’s not our issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”

“And do you listen?” we asked.

“Some of the time, but after a while, you can only take so much,” they replied.

Which raises the question: What happens after you’re tired and they’re ignored? It’s only a matter of time before people stop trying or find someplace else to work where they will be listened to.

It’s worth the time investment to teach your team how to vet ideas for viability so they’ll know a good idea when they see one. This is where the IDEA framework comes in. This set of criteria helps employees differentiate good ideas from bad ones:

I – Interesting

Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results (e.g., customer experience, employee retention, efficiency) improve from this idea?

D – Doable

Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?

E – Engaging

Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?

A – Actions

What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?

By consistently asking employees for their input — and teaching them how to recognize a good idea — you’ll give yourself a huge competitive advantage. You’ll attract the most innovative talent, and you’ll have more employees actively looking for innovative ways to improve operations and the customer experience.

Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let’s Grow Leaders and the authors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates (Harper Collins Summer 2020) and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul (AMACOM 2016).

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Karin Hurt and David Dye are the founders of Let's Grow Leaders, a leadership training and consulting firm in Maryland. They're known for their deep experience, innovative approach, and highly practical tools. Their new book, "Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates" is available for preorder now on Amazon.