Most organisations today espouse a culture of honest and open communication, but it’s not enough to simply say the words or name them as a corporate value. You have to walk the talk if you truly want managers and employees to share ideas and opinions.
Many employees are reluctant to disagree with their company’s leadership and management out of fear of retribution. Many companies have a forced, “happy” culture that names “open communication” as a corporate value while managers actively and/or passively discourage dissenting opinions.
As a result, employees will avoid voicing their concerns at all costs and prefer to continue doing things as instructed by their bosses even when they suspect (or know) that there is a better way.
Most organisations have room for improvement when it comes to encouraging open communication. Employees often struggle to open up and speak freely when communicating with their managers and some of the most common reasons why they feel this way are:
- managers never bothering to ask for employees’ thoughts, views and opinions;
- managers not listening, responding, or taking any action based on employee input;
- managers not stopping to look at the employee and acknowledge what they are saying;
- managers condescendingly discounting employees’ ideas, views and concerns, and;
- managers getting mad and/or confrontational thus inspiring fear of retaliation.
Employees are much more likely to believe the communications environment they actually experience in their day-to-day work at the office no matter how glossy the “openness and honesty” posters that they see in the lobby are.
This means your organisation must create an environment where managers clearly know the company values communication and employees feel comfortable speaking up.
Opening up communication takes commitment and intentional effort but the results are totally worth it. Here’s how to go about encouraging open communication in order to create such an environment.
Acknowledge that your employees’ views are important
The first step in opening up communication is to acknowledge to yourself that your employees have great insights and understanding about what is taking place in your company and industry as a whole.
Employees on the front line are often the first to notice the future needs and demands of your customers. When you take the time and energy to solicit input from them and listen to gain a thorough understanding of the situation, you increase your organisation’s odds of staying agile and innovative.
Ask your employees for input
Unfortunately, many managers often respond to an employee’s interest in providing input by saying they don’t have the time for it. Make it clear that the managers must make time to ask your employees for suggestions.
This may sound simple and obvious, but it’s important to communicate unambiguously that management, in fact, wants to hear from employees: ideas, concerns as well as questions.
Listen to your employees reflectively
Encourage managers to clearly show that they have heard employees’ opinions. One way to do this is to pause a bit before replying and perhaps repeat back to the employee what they said instead of rapidly firing back your own opinion without any indication that you have heard or considered their view.
Demonstrate that you not only hear what the employee is saying, but that you understand the emotions behind it. State that you perceive a specific emotion in their tone or body language. Don’t discount how a person feels or suggest they should not feel the way they do.
For example, reflect by saying “I hear the concern in your voice,” instead of “There’s no need to be concerned” or “I can see how agitated you are by this,” instead of “You need to relax.”
Engage your employees on a personal level
Greet your employees when you see them. You don’t have to know every employee’s name (no one expects you to), but a simple, “Good morning!” or “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” helps create a more relaxed and comfortable environment in which employees can feel confident enough to be more open.
Make an effort to get to know your employees beyond their role in the company. Ask what they did on the weekend, how their kids or parents are doing or how their favourite sports team is doing. Showing interest in employees communicates that they are valued beyond their work — as human beings.
Be respectful to your employees
When your employees come to you with problems or suggestions, make it clear they have your full attention; stop what you are doing, look them straight in the eye, listen, and ask questions about what they are saying.
Don’t give employees the impression that they are not important by not acknowledging them, continuing to type, checking email, taking phone calls or rummaging through your files.
Acknowledge your employees’ input
Managers don’t have to act on every suggestion. Employees understand that not every idea is appropriate or realistic but they just want to know that their ideas were heard and considered.
Even if you can’t act on it, sharing your employees’ input in the next company publication, for example goes a long way. They key is to show your employees that their opinions are heard and respected.
Recognise your employees
When employees say they want more recognition, company leadership often assumes they are talking about money – that they want a bonus or raise. In fact, they are most often talking about two simple words, “Thank you.”
Expressing gratitude employees for taking the lead on a project, staying late or putting in extra time goes a long way toward encouraging open communication in your company.
Make a schedule and stick to it
Schedule regular times for small meetings with employees and honour those commitments. Employees often complain about managers announcing a series of bi-weekly staff meetings, holding the first few and then becoming “too busy” for any further sessions.
Don’t suggest a schedule that will be unrealistic – you are better off arranging for fortnightly meetings that you can actually consistently honour.
Describe instead of judging
When discussing an employee’s behavior or a decision they made, avoid judging their behavior or the reasoning behind their decision. Instead, describe what you observed.
For example, “I noticed status reports have been a few days late for three weeks now,” instead of, “You’ve become lazy and don’t seem to care about your work.” The former leaves room for the employee to explain themselves and/or commit to improving while the latter simply pushes them to disengage and feel ashamed or agitated.
Don’t shy away from problems
When there’s a problem that needs to be fixed or an employee’s work needs improvement, have the courage to acknowledge the situation in the early stages before it gets out of hand. When leaders avoid problems or shrink back from addressing performance issues, the situations always get worse.
Furthermore, when you avoid facing the performance issue everyone else on the team knows you are not capable of holding people accountable, which in turn undermines their trust and confidence in you.
Beyond stating that your company values ”honest and open communication,” it’s absolutely critical that employees at every level of your organisation practice behaviors that foster an open exchange of information and ideas and also encourage open communication and honest input from everyone.