How to create & guard open workplace communication: The cost of silence is too high

It feels great when everyone agrees with you, doesn’t it? Surely it means you’re on the right track – except it doesn’t. If agreement comes at the cost of truth, it’s not a very healthy workplace communication dynamic. Too often direct reports are afraid to give the boss bad news or even a differing opinion.

How can you be sure your company’s culture is truly one of open communication?

Think of bringing up difficult subjects as Crucial Conversations. In fact, corporate trainers Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler have written a helpful book with that title. They explain that each of us brings our own experiences and understandings to workplace communication, and when those understandings are in sync we experience a “pool of shared meaning.” An organization’s pool of shared meaning needs to be safe for a new person to enter with new meaning, because the expansion of shared meaning leads to better choices and positive participation. On the other hand, they write, “When people purposely withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.”

Unspoken hard things don’t go away. They lie beneath the surface and slowly eat away at the foundation of trust and respect a successful business needs. Consequences will start with disengagement and potentially could grow into personal and corporate disaster. The cost of silence is too high.

Besides risking bad things if people are afraid to communicate honestly, you also miss out on creative ideas. “Good ideas that stem from the individuals who know an organization most intimately — the employees — are the lifeblood of any business,” says the American Management Association on open communication. “To lose the steady flow of insights and innovations unique to your business is a sure path to static, or worse, arrested growth.”

Businesses might be able to survive without open communication, but they will not thrive. If you want to thrive, become a leader who sets the stage for safety and vulnerability, and have the courage to model it yourself.

It's great when everyone agrees, isn't it? But if agreement comes at the cost of truth, it's not a very healthy workplace communication dynamic.

7 tips for workplace communication that’s open and honest

Peter Barron Stark, executive coach and management consultant, gives leaders seven tips to establish open workplace communication:

Ask. Don’t wait for someone to volunteer an opinion, and don’t assume agreement just because you don’t hear disagreement. When someone does share an opinion with you, keep questioning to clearly understand their perspective.

Describe. Stay objective about behavior rather than expressing a judgment about the person exhibiting it.

Ask what and how. Gather facts rather than questioning motives. Asking why will put people on the defensive, which will derail trust of each other’s best intentions.

Listen. When someone shares with you, give them your attention. Put down your phone and don’t respond to alerts until after your conversation.

Acknowledge. Let them know you’ve heard their concerns or suggestions. Then follow through in appropriate ways. It’s discouraging to get up the nerve to share something sensitive and then have it die of inattention.

Reflect. Don’t default to instruction or persuasion. And by no means react with defensiveness of your own. Instead, express interest in and empathy for the underlying emotions and values that might not be explicitly expressed.

Clarify, verify, and summarize. These active listening skills keep the door open. Drawing a conclusion effectively closes the conversation and future ones. In fact, consider ending by asking if there is anything else the person wants to share with you.

Of course, our workplaces also must have procedures in place to give everyone, at all levels, the power to address issues that involve safety or compliance. Without them, we risk legal jeopardy as well as the trust of our team.  It’s also essential that we have whistleblower and harassment policies to protect our employees and that we guard against retaliation. This document detailing OSHA’s Anti-retaliation Whistleblower Protection Program is a good resource.

A business with an authentic culture of open communication will draw and keep employees because they will know they are valued partners in the organization’s mission. When you are ready to add to your executive team, we are ready to help you recruit leaders who will share this value. Contact our team today and let’s have an open conversation about your hiring needs.

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