How to create an open, honest culture

Filed under Columns, Women, Workplace

By Jenny Schade, Guest Columnist

Jenny Schade explains why a workplace that supports open and honest communication is important

Jenny Schade writes on the importance of open communication; photo by Light Design Photography

True or false: Working for a company that touts a culture of open and honest communication means it’s fine to constantly check and compose e-mails during meetings.

The answer is “false.” If you answered “true,” your company doesn’t have an open and honest culture.

Why not? Consider how comfortable you would be discussing an issue with a manager who didn’t make eye contact and interacted more with the computer than with you during the meeting. In the big picture, what message is the manager sending?

When actions speak louder than words

Many might consider the manager’s actions to be rude, but the problem is larger than that. The manager is effectively shutting down communication and suggesting to others that their opinions are not valued or desired.  So much for the company’s stated “open and honest” culture.

Many companies claim to practice open communication, implying that their employees feel well informed and free to provide input. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that when I speak privately with employees at some of these organizations, they report feeling cut off from information and discouraged from voicing their opinions by behaviors such as the e-mail checking described above or the examples that follow.  As a result, they hesitate to share their opinions or ask questions that would help them do their best work.

At one organization that retained my consulting firm to determine why employees gave the company low scores for innovation and open communication, confidential interviews revealed that staff members were reluctant to disagree with the company’s leadership team out of fear of retribution. They described a forced “happy” culture that named open communication and innovation as corporate values while managers actively discouraged dissenting opinions.

For example, one manager responded to a question at a team meeting with, “I don’t have time for input.” As a result, employees didn’t voice their concerns. Instead, they continued working on test products even when they had reason to believe the products ultimately would fail.

Employees on alert

At another company, a division director retained us because he wasn’t getting the daily flow of financial information he needed from his staff. Staff interviews revealed that the director’s moods varied so greatly that they had instituted a secret “red light/green light” system with a clandestine graphic stoplight outside of his office. On days with a green light, they felt free to approach him. But when the red light was out, they avoided him because of his angry outbursts. Communication consulting benefited this director and led to a greatly improved information flow with his staff, increasing his ability to report daily financial results to home office.

Claiming to have a culture that supports open and honest communication isn’t enough if you don’t create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up.

Here are six ways to establish an open and honest communication:

1. Engage in reflective listening.

You can do this by clearly indicating that you have heard and considered others’ opinions. Take a moment to repeat back what others have said. For example, one company president was astounded to hear that his employees didn’t consider him to be interested in their points of view, yet his employees had told us that he tended to rapidly fire back his own opinion without  indicating he had heard or considered their ideas. As we coached this leader in effective listening skills, he sheepishly acknowledged hearing similar feedback from his spouse.

2. Greet fellow employees when you see them.

Even a simple, “Good morning!” or “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” can help create a more open and comfortable environment.

3. Ask for employee input at all levels.

Encourage employees to make time to listen to colleagues’ questions and suggestions. For example, one client experienced a rapid acceleration of new product growth by encouraging product development and marketing employees to increase collaboration.

4. Make an effort to get to know your co-workers.

Ask what they did on the weekend, how their children or parents are doing or where they grew up. Showing an interest in employees communicates that they are valued beyond their work — as human beings.

5. Provide forums for information and opinion exchange.

Invite employees to gather regularly for town hall meetings, all-hands meetings or “Breakfast with Tom,” to hear from leadership and ask questions. Most companies hold these meetings twice a year or quarterly. During times of great activity or uncertainty, hold meetings more often to provide updates and listen to workers’ questions and concerns.  Even if you don’t have anything new to announce, it’s important to be available and reassure employees.  Uncertainty fuels fear, ultimately reducing productivity.

6. Establish eye contact in meetings.

Make it clear that others have your attention. Don’t check e-mail or take phone calls. It’s better to have a short meeting in which others feel they have your full attention than to allow interruptions that suggest you really aren’t all that interested.

Overall, a culture of open and honest communication means good business. Beyond stating that an organization values ”openness and honesty,” senior leadership should set the tone by exchanging information freely and encouraging honest input from every level.

Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting Inc., a Chicago-area firm that helps organizations build leading brands and  attract and motivate employees and customers. Schade also publishes the JRS Newsletter.

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