Getting Employees to Share Their Problems With You

You recently found out that one of your senior designers has been quietly correcting the mistakes of a colleague for over a year. Her intentions were good: She was dealing with the problem so you, as her manager, didn’t have to address it. It’s not an uncommon scenario in companies today, particularly in understaffed departments.

However, the news isn’t entirely positive. Because the designer was helping her coworker, you weren’t aware of the individual’s performance problem. In addition, your lead designer is burned out from performing two jobs. Moreover, you weren’t able to do your job as a manager. After all, you’re there to serve as a resource to employees, supporting and guiding them as issues arise.

Indeed, many workers are encouraged to take initiative and refrain from mentioning issues unless there’s a clear solution. It’s part of the pared-down, post-recession structure of many businesses today. However, there is a trade-off in rewarding “silent fixers” and not encouraging employees to openly discuss problems with you. An issue that may have been easily addressed in the short-term can become a long-term drain on costs, productivity and morale.

While you don’t want employees to bring every little problem to your attention, it’s important to encourage staff members to mention more serious productivity issues as they arise. Following are some suggestions to prompt employees to do so:

Look for clues. Does the culture encourage openness or a stiff upper lip when it comes to professional challenges? Consider your team’s last few projects. For instance, maybe a marketing manager imposed a last-minute deadline for a brochure then subsequently rejected all three designs a staff member created. If you heard from the designer and worked with him to prevent the situation from reoccurring, you probably have a relatively open work environment. On the other hand, if you weren’t made aware of the problem until months later, the environment is likely one where employees feel uncomfortable discussing problems with the work process.

Don’t let them sweep it under the rug. If you’ve determined that your company’s environment is one where people tend to suffer in silence, encourage your staff to bring issues to light. Emphasize that it’s not always necessary to identify a solution; it’s helpful for you to hear about workflow obstacles or interoffice politics before they become bigger. In fact, not pointing out a problem can in itself be troublesome—for them, for you and, ultimately, for the business. If an art director rewrites a product description at blueline rather than tell the copywriter the client dislikes it, the designer isn’t doing the writer any favors and is costing the company money.

Thank the “noise makers.” Consider rewarding creatives who bring issues to your attention. It could be as simple as e-mailing a thank-you to your junior designer for telling you about a glitch in the production process. Often, a positive reception to this type of feedback is enough to encourage similar future behavior.

Define “important.” To prevent staff members from bringing too much to your attention, such as weekly nits about coworkers, emphasize to your team what you define as an issue that requires your involvement, more specifically, one that will continue to impact productivity or morale if left unchecked.

Ultimately, openly discussing problems will encourage people to learn from their mistakes and improve your firm’s work environment. Just keep in mind that if your organization has a “grin and bear it” history, it could take time for staff members to become more vocal. By encouraging candid dialogue, and, perhaps most important, serving as an example by pointing out problems yourself, you’ll address issues before they become serious.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.