When Honesty Seems Too Risky

“I’m not sure people are going to be honest here. It’s too risky.”

I’ve lost count how many times this comment surfaces on advance surveys and in real-time conversations. People perceive speaking their mind in the presence of others to be risky.

Sure. We’ve probably all done that risk/return on investment calculation in our minds.

How will I be perceived if I say this?
Everyone else seems to be OK with this, so should I just keep quiet?
I don’t want to be the only one advocating a different path.
I have to be careful since my boss (or other power party) is in the room. 

But what about the risk individuals and group assume when perspectives aren’t shared, yet decisions are still made? What about the long-term consequences of people learning to keep silent when they really want to speak? We pay a very real price if we do not create a culture where a lack of honesty is also seen as risky.

When I’m facilitating a meeting or workshop, I don't question people who say they fear speaking out. It is their truth.

But if people don’t feel they can speak honestly in a discussion, this then becomes the focus of the discussion I first facilitate. 

Here are some of the questions I ask of both the participants, as well as myself.  In some cases, the lack of trust present does not allow for a particular question to be discussed openly, so I have participants note responses anonymously which I then read them aloud to the group.

These questions are not listed in a particular order. I select the sequence in real-time that matches the participants’ needs, our purpose for convening, and how the subsequent discussion unfolds. I welcome your suggestions for other questions in the comments.

  • If one or two people express that honest opinions are unlikely to be shared, do others feel the same? If not, what causes this difference in perceived level of safety and willingness to speak freely?
  • For whom might it be risky to speak honestly and why?
  • Is the challenge with this issue only or others as well?
  • What is the group’s experience with honest discussions on difficult issues? Are there positive examples we can draw learning and strength from for this discussion?
  • What margin of safety would enable greater honesty?
  • How can we create this margin of safety? What is required of individuals? Me as facilitator? The group collectively?
  • Is this a question/topic that participants value enough to challenge themselves, to speak more freely than they might normally do or initially feel comfortable doing? In other words, do people see progress on the issue meriting the potentially high stakes conversation and perceived personal risk?

This last question is an important one. When people want progress to happen and that the issue truly matters, they often are more willing to speak more freely than they initially feel comfortable doing. Absent feeling that the question matters, people often remain more silent even after other adjustments are made to the group process to increase perceived safety and comfort.

Unsurprisingly, members of a group often have different perceptions on how risky it is for them to contribute freely. Tenure, title, and trust are just three of the factors associated with these differences.  

To move group members beyond debating whether or not it is too risky to speak up, I often ask each participant to finish the following: 

"To speak open and honestly, I need _________." 

With responses phrased as a personal expression of need, it seems to help people accept that individuals are in different places and that risk is not perceived equally. They can they support their colleagues as requested.