By David Hassell
Feb. 14, 2013
Open communication is a concept that almost all companies claim to value, but few achieve. You can survive without open communication, but few organizations thrive without it. How can you develop it? What are the pitfalls? What’s key to keep in mind?
Trust is key
High-performing teams are built on a foundation of trust. Trust is based on individual team members making and keeping commitments and being vulnerable with one another, which in turn opens the door to stronger relationships. Relationships are strengthened through continued open communication.
Engagement enhances performance
Nurturing any staff to a higher level of performance involves leading them to this place of strong relationships and trust. A natural result of trust is engagement: it means that employees care deeply about their work, feel like they’re part of the team, are bought into the greater vision, and offer their unique strengths. None of this is possible unless those employees feel like the company cares about them, values their work, has their best interests in mind, and accepts them as part of an integral team. If an employee believes this, they will bring their best work to the company every day.
Communication is key to reaching this level of engagement; a culture where employees are encouraged to share ideas and concerns, both positive and negative, gives employees the sense they are valued. This leads to a greater sense of ownership in the company’s success. It’s the vital difference between an employee who shows up and offers a minimum of effort, and an employee who comes to the office ready to give their all for the success of the team. In short, a sense of progress leads to happy employees. And happy employees tend to be the most productive employees.
Communicate a common goal
While a trusting, highly engaged employee will boost productivity, it does no good if there is no common goal. When employees operate at cross purposes, communication is critical in setting things straight. Management must be clear in stating objectives, both overall and at the departmental level. Communicating clear objectives is the way management creates alignment among disciplines. The more open a leadership team is in sharing their vision - which should include their goals, strategies, and values - the more likely each employee will understand their role in the greater mission and engage to make success happen.
Snowball effect of bad communication
In the absence of open communication, a snowball effect of negative actions can envelop the energy of an organization. If communication is tentative and secretive, trust tends to erode. When trust erodes, employees disengage and hold back their thoughts. They begin to feel that management no longer has their best interests in mind, and may be wary of offering anything over and above the minimal contribution. At the same time, management begins to note these less-than-stellar efforts. Managers then doubt that employees have the best interests of the business in mind, and are performing to the best of their abilities.
Worst of all, poor communication and the resulting erosion of trust leads to a reluctance to share ideas. Good ideas stem from individuals who know an organization most intimately - the employees - and are the lifeblood of any business. To lose this steady flow of insights and innovations is a sure path to static, or worse, arrested growth.
Keys to keep in mind
What should you keep in mind while trying to foster open communication?
Make open communication part of the company culture. If it is clear to employees that open communication is welcome, mutual and expected, they will operate on that basis. You must lead by example. Your employees’ willingness to be open and vulnerable will be a direct reflection of your own willingness to do so.
Respect, honor and reward open communication. Meet the enthusiastic sharing of ideas, insights and concerns with positive reinforcement, never reproach. This encourages openness and shows that optimal behavior is modeled on that value.
Develop an effective method for collaboration and the sharing of ideas. It could be a software tool, a series of meetings, or a protocol for electronic communication. Whatever it is, stick to it, and let it be known that participation is expected.
Remember vulnerability has its rewards. Great communication requires vulnerability on both sides, which can be scary. Remember that the rewards far outweigh the perceived potential danger.
As a manager, practice what you preach. Employees can’t be expected to behave in a way that management itself doesn’t adhere to. So, trust them as you expect them to trust you. Honor your commitments. Keep goals, values and concerns out in the open. Stay engaged and give it your all for the success of the team.
David Hassell is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of 15Five, a software company focused on producing transparency and alignment in organizations through structured, efficient and effective communication practices. He recently served as president of the San Francisco chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, www.eonetwork.org. In 2004, he co-founded Kite Adventures, www.kiteadventures.com, an adventure travel company offering guided downwind tours and pro-coached kiteboarding camps in northeast Brazil.