Lack of open communication is like playing the children’s game telephone. Remember the one where the leader whispers a message that gets communicated down a line of people? By the end of the game, the original sentence is entirely different from what the first person initially said. Now, think about how this transpires in real life. In the workplace, a lack of communication causes poor business outcomes because employees act on miscommunicated messages and mixed signals. However, unlike the game of telephone, in business, there are real consequences to poor communication.
Open communication is a crucial skill leaders need to ensure business success. In a survey on the importance of communication, Fierce, Inc. found “86 percent of respondents blame lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.” Without clear and consistent communication, employees lack direction, productivity suffers, employee engagement levels decrease, and conflict arises. The only thing that increases is the number of mistakes that get made (and the amount of customers who stop buying from the company).
To prevent these problems from occurring, find out more about open communication, why it’s important, examples of it in the workplace, and top ways to practice it with your team.
What is Open Communication?
Open communication is readily sharing information between people in a transparent, honest, consistent, and dependable way. When team members openly communicate, they express their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and plans clearly and assertively. By eliminating aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive language and nonverbal cues, team members can work together more effectively.
Why is Open Communication Important?
Without open communication in the workplace, the internal systems that allow businesses to run smoothly begin faltering. As a result, it affects how well the company operates. For example, if silos form among different teams and employees stop communicating, problems will arise. This might look like duplicate work or no one tackling a particular task that’s crucial to finishing a large-scale project. Overall, communication issues affect productivity, team morale, and customer and employee satisfaction. However, these are just a few ways a lack of open communication hurts businesses. Find out more about why open communication matters below.
It Expresses the Job That Needs to Be Done
Not meeting the mark is easy when setting expectations isn’t on a leader’s list of priorities. Providing direction, explaining why work matters, and explaining each person’s role in fulfilling these objectives positions projects toward completion. By openly communicating these things, team members have a greater understanding of what they need to do and why.
Employees Learn How to Be Accountable
People are most likely to take ownership of their work when they have someone to be accountable to. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found accountability meetings with another person increase the likelihood of fulfilling individual goals by 95 percent. This means openly communicating by discussing progress and potential setbacks helps employees reach challenging key performance metrics (KPIs) and other personal and professional goals.
The Team Forms Stronger Relationships
In Listen!: The Art of Effective Communication, Dale Carnegie & Associates writes, “The truth is, communication creates—or destroys—relationships.” What they mean is that communication is powerful. When leaders develop the skills to openly communicate in a constructive manner, trust increases and relationships grow stronger. However, when communication becomes closed, the opposite happens. Employees begin perceiving their leaders as emotionally unintelligent, daunting, demanding, intimidating, and critical. As a result, engagement and employee retention levels decrease, which can leave the rest of the company in a bind.
Organizational Problems Stop Worsening
With open communication, leaders are receptive to receiving information that can help them tackle issues that prevent the team from reaching its full potential. Repressing problems is only a way to multiply them. For example, this might look like growing resentment among an employee who feels like their boss doesn’t consider their workload when assigning new duties. Eventually, the person’s frustration and inability to manage the work on their plate might cause them to burn out and find a different job. To prevent an issue like this, employees need to feel like they can openly share their concerns and ideas for solving them without being judged, shamed, or blamed.
Examples of Open Communication in the Workplace
So, what does open communication in the workplace look like? The truth is, leaders practice it in a variety of ways. To find out how, review a few of the examples below.
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown provides a strategy for leaning into open communication when people might feel like doing the opposite. She calls this “a rumble.” Her definition of this practice is: “a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and . . . to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.”
During rumbles, she suggests:
- Identifying facts versus assumptions.
- Getting curious about problems, feelings, ideas, and behaviors.
- Asking clarifying questions.
- Having people walk you through their thought processes.
Giving (and Receiving) Regular Feedback
People can’t improve without consistent feedback. This includes leaders. Normalizing the process of giving and receiving feedback helps teams learn how to improve together. Additionally, people stop fearing critiques and loftier objectives as they start to realize how capable they are. This boost of confidence corresponds with the development of a growth mindset in the company culture. It also eliminates toxic workplace behaviors like perfectionism and lack of innovation.
To create a feedback loop:
- Eliminate annual performance reviews and get into the habit of providing feedback every week.
- Challenge employees to set goals that make them feel uncomfortable.
- Teach people how to fail with grace. When they make a mistake, ask them what they learned from the experience and how they plan on moving forward (instead of letting them dwell on the past).
- Vocalize your own errors and the ways you need to improve.
- Ask for feedback on your performance. This might look like saying, “How can I better support you?” or “What is one leadership trait you wish to see demonstrated more at the company?”
Teaching Leadership Qualities
Leaders establish company culture, meaning they’re responsible for showing their team how to treat people, collaborate, problem solve, and practice decision making together. When a CEO or founder closes themselves off to their team by only interacting with other executives, there’s no one raising the next generation of leaders. Open communication is needed because employees need to be shown how to develop into leaders who lead themselves and lead each other. Teaching employees how to step into effective leadership styles allows business owners to experience more freedom in their personal and professional lives. They can trust the organization will function in their absence while reclaiming more time to focus on ways to grow the business.
When instructing employees on how to be leaders:
- Develop a company-wide mentorship program.
- Start a leadership book club to discuss certain leadership traits and how to grow them.
- Regularly engage with team members. Ask them questions about their goals in life, their ambitions for the future, what they believe their strengths and weaknesses are, what lessons they hope to learn, and how they feel they can best contribute.
- Begin delegating duties to employees while also checking in, monitoring their progress, and supporting them along the way.
Other Ways to Practice Open Communication as a Leader
The examples above are only a few select ways leaders might incorporate open communication into their company culture. Truthfully, there are many ways to communicate more directly and assertively while still being approachable and friendly. Below are multiple strategies for creating a workplace environment where honest, transparent communication is the status quo.
Idea-Sharing and Brainstorming
Open communication fosters creativity and innovation by encouraging team members to build off one another’s ideas. Meeting for a brainstorming session or asking for ideas during a group meeting is one of the best ways to increase engagement and participation levels. It also shows team members you look to them for answers on solving company problems, growing the business, and creating a great team culture. Additionally, leaders who ask for their employees’ insight demonstrate they value their employees’ thoughts, opinions, and strategic thinking abilities. This leads to a greater sense of responsibility and makes workers feel like executives see them as an integral part of the business.
To get employees to speak more openly:
- Commend them for sharing their ideas, thought processes, and concerns.
- Be respectful, actively listen, and give your full attention to a person when they’re speaking.
- Act as a moderator in conversations. Keep the team building off one another by asking them to share their thoughts on what you or someone else in the group says.
- Never shame, judge, or emotionally overreact to what a team member says. If you disagree with the words they share, ask to revisit the conversation in 24 hours.
- Create a problem solving committee that meets as soon as organizational issues surface. Team members will learn how to tackle problems together while also learning not to ignore roadblocks that prevent the business from succeeding.
Showing Employee Recognition and Appreciation
Great teams openly express gratitude and appreciation for one another. Each individual understands that the business could never reach its goals and produce a monumental positive impact on the world without each other. As famed NBA coach Phil Jackson puts it, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” When team members recognize each others’ strengths, they better understand how to play together. It also fulfills emotional needs like feeling a sense of belonging, love, and esteem. As these needs are met, trust grows, as do the team bonds needed to work together seamlessly.
To build a culture of team appreciation:
- During team meetings, ask each team member to recognize and appreciate one person in the room openly.
- Vocalize the times individuals produce great work, fulfill a big challenge, step up to the plate, or demonstrate a great attitude.
- Make sure team members have a way of collaborating and connecting outside of in-person meetings. For instance, use Slack or Microsoft Teams to ensure team members still have access to each other when working remotely.
- Never take credit for someone else’s work. Additionally, don’t allow group members to do this either. Instead, encourage team members to think about the big picture when it comes to how projects get completed. For instance, what needed to happen to meet a goal. Who helped? What did they do? How did they do it?
Leading with Honesty and Integrity
Speaking beautifully about plans you never intend to work toward or expressing gratitude in an insincere manner will only make people trust you less. There’s nothing more annoying than a person who can wax poetic all day long, but when it comes down to business, they seem nowhere to be found. To be an influential leader, your words and actions must align. As Simon Sinek writes in Start with Why, “Trust is maintained when values and beliefs are actively managed.” Without this management, open communication creates increased distrust.
To avoid coming across as untrustworthy:
- Identify your values and live them.
- Don’t make promises to people you can’t keep.
- Be transparent about what you can and can’t help out with.
Learn to Improve Other Communication Skills
Open communication is just one technique a person can use to increase their leadership abilities. Another important form of communication is assertive communication, which is great to partner with this particular skill. Leaders can ensure that their thoughts, words, and actions are clearly understood by learning how to communicate assertively. This prevents people from rambling, being indirective, and contributing to a toxic work culture by acting passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive.
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