Cultivating Open Communication

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Many companies tout an “open-door” policy, claiming to welcome feedback and criticism from employees. More often than not, this policy is completely disregarded by employees who don’t feel that the environment is truly accepting of their opinions or observations. There are other feelings or other factors at play that prevent your employees from speaking freely. This can range from the employee feeling that you will take the commentary personally, or that they’ll come off as smug know-it-alls. While many executives put initiatives into place to open the flow of communication, they often fall short of expectations. There are two major factors preventing employees from speaking their minds: a fear of the potential consequences, and a pessimistic sense of uselessness. If you’re truly looking to create a culture of open communication in your workplace, you may need to step back and develop new tactics.

If communication practices aren’t updated to make personal expression welcome, then employees can become disinterested in contributing their feedback. Allowing employees to respond anonymously can backfire, it can heighten fears and send a subliminal message about the danger of openly expressing your opinions. It can also spark a witch hunt, wherein executives demand to know who said what. Most importantly, pursuing real problems can be difficult, especially when it comes to protecting the identities of those who raise legitimate concerns. If there is a serious accusation then a serious collection of data will follow. You will have to conduct interviews, stories will need to corroborated, and gather any other relevant information. This process will undoubtedly expose the people involved. Extending a general invitation to come forward doesn’t make it any less intimidating for you employees; they may be nervous about approaching you. To prevent this, make an effort to level your influence with that of your employees. Avoid establishing yourself as the one “in-charge,” because power dynamics can be intimidating. While all of these practices are put into place with good intentions, the results can be telling about the process.

Executives are, by default, the representative of their employees. This means that if leaders aren’t vocal, then employees will follow this behavior. If you want to engage employees in open communication, then you, too, will need to participate. Be clear with the feedback you are seeking. Make feedback a clear and regular priority. If you communicate with your employees often, sharing opinions and observations becomes natural and loses its tense nature. Be transparent, let your employees know what you’re doing and what will come of it. Providing your employees with guidelines and expectations will make them feel more in the know, and more willing to contribute. Go out of your way to eliminate power dynamics, or at least decrease them. Make your employees feel comfortable by creating a welcoming environment. Most importantly, you need to be the example for your employees. Employees will be open to speaking with you if you advocate for them. They will provide feedback if they feel that their words are creating actions. Completing the connection between their feedback, and policy changes will demonstrate the value of their efforts. To read more about easing the flow of communication, see the Harvard Business Review.