Dear Jayme:

You've told me to listen to my employees to be aware of how my business is running. Good idea, but employees are always afraid to tell the boss the bad stuff. They're not going to talk to me, are they?




Dear Trenton:

Employees afraid to talk honestly to the boss? Not unless you make it that way.

How your father reacted when you told him about the dog pooping in his favorite chair is how you were taught to react to bad news. If he became a raging madman and blamed you for not letting Muttley out sooner, you learned that the appropriate response to bad news was to go postal and shoot the messenger. If this is your management model, your employees probably aren't beating down your office door.

If, however, dad sat down calmly with you, thanked you for letting him know there was a problem, and let you help figure out a method that made sure Muttley was let out twice a day to prevent accidents, you learned that bringing problems to light was a good thing.

Business owners who manage this latter way hear about a lot more stuff from their employees, can correct problems earlier and have far more effective and profitable businesses.  If you've ever said: "What? You're kidding! Why didn't anyone tell me about this a year ago? We could've fixed it back then and saved a bundle!!" then you know why bad communication is expensive.

Here's how to do it:

Employees must feel safe. They have to know you won't explode, blame them unfairly or be vindictive when they bring you information. The business is a partnership between you and your employees, and partnerships mean respect and honesty on both sides. A few ground rules:

  • Explain what's happening: Craft a company policy about communication-what's okay, what's not, what's mandatory. Write it down. Have a meeting and explain it to everyone.
  • Be ready when you feel angry: The first time an employee gives you some legitimate criticism, it will make you angry and indignant I guarantee. Be prepared with something like, "Well, I can't say it feels good to hear this, but I'm really glad you told me. What do you think we should do?" Don't betray their trust by getting huffy.
  • Make changes when it makes sense: Nothing will encourage communication more than seeing feedback turn into a visible, positive change in the business. The reverse of this is that if you only listen and never take action, your people will know the whole process is a sham, and your credibility will suffer.
  • Be 100 percent consistent: Months of your best behavior can be negated if you have one bad reaction to bad news. Not fair, but true.
  • Be patient: This isn't going to happen overnight, particularly if you've been Attila the Boss for years.

Being willing to listen doesn't mean being a wimp. You don't have to solemnly listen to every petty complaint or put up with insolence and personal attacks. You don't have to change something just because an employee doesn't like it. Encouraging feedback doesn't mean your employees get a license to repeatedly screw up as long as they tell you about it. Spell this out in your policy.


It's a lot easier and more profitable to run your business as a partnership than a dictatorship. Give your employees the permission and safety to bring their ideas and problems to you, and you'll find they care a lot more about your business than you probably thought. And Muttley won't poop in your chair.


Jayme Dill Broudy


Construction Business Owner, November 2006