Cultivating a Culture of Open Communication
One of the key building blocks to creating a truly exceptional employee experience is cultivating an environment where employees feel free to both share and receive open and honest feedback. By building a culture of open and trusted communication, we can create a more engaging, creative, and authentic workforce where employees feel deeply connected to the goals and objectives of the organization.
Open Communication Definition
As an EX XM Scientist at Qualtrics (the group of industrial-organizational psychologists behind our product), I partner with many organizations that claim to value open communication, however few truly embody a culture of openness and honesty. Underlying employees’ willingness to converse openly is a solid foundation of trust in the organization and the entire work environment. Trust is established over time and involves both leaders and teammates making and following through on commitments, as well as being open, vulnerable, and authentic with one another.1 This may be a direct report trusting in their manager to provide them with support on a highly visible stretch project or senior leader trusting in an R&D team to deliver product enhancements in time for launch. As trust begins to grow, stronger relationships are also cultivated with the support of open and honest communication.
From my experience partnering with clients and being part of the I-O psychology field, here are a few ways to begin cultivating a workplace culture of open and honest communication:
1. Commitment from the top – Real culture change occurs when all leaders and teammates commit to communicating openly and honestly.2 Senior leaders should set the example by sharing as much information as they can with employees, such as regular updates on the business. Take time to evaluate the current channels of communication to ensure that communication processes allow all teammates to receive regular senior leadership updates.
2. Share routine business updates – People want to be “in the know,” rather than “in the dark” with little information on the business and surprised when certain key decisions are made. Take time during your regular team meetings to update teammates on the current state of the business, including financial updates, organizational changes, and new hires.3 The more people feel informed, the more connected they feel to the organization by understanding how their work contributes to the organization’s overall strategy.4
3. Make OKRs public – While providing routine business updates fosters transparency, going one step further by sharing objectives and key results (OKRs) keeps everyone aligned and focused on the same outcome, while also promoting openness. People will understand how their role fits into the “big picture” and will be held accountable for delivering their set goals and objectives.5
Open Your Door and Your Ears
4. Create an “open door” policy – Invite teammates to come and share their ideas, ask questions, solicit feedback, or even chat about plans for the upcoming weekend. Don’t only open your “door” (office, desk, or google chat) to people, but more importantly open your mind to their comments, questions, suggestions, or complaints. When people know that you are welcoming and open to hearing their thoughts and ideas, they’ll continue to come back to you in the future.6 If team members aren’t coming to you, make an effort to reach out to them individually to solicit their feedback and share with them.
5. Actively listen – Once your “door” is open to people, it’s critical to then open your ears and mind to people by actively listening to what they are sharing. Rather than multitasking while you listen, stop what you are doing and provide your full attention while they are speaking. Resist the temptation to interject with your opinions and allow them to finish sharing. Before replying, pause briefly to gather your thoughts repeat your understanding of what they have shared with you. This indicates that you have heard them, understand any concerns that they may have, and have considered their thoughts and ideas.7
6. Be open to constructive feedback – A key part of open and honest communication is welcoming and encouraging feedback that may be negative or constructive. When people come to you with constructive feedback about your management practices, work processes, or business decisions, listen with an open mind and resist the urge to instantly refute what they are saying or shoot down any new ideas they may have shared. Take time to reflect and consider the feedback provided instead of hastily dismissing it, which discourages teammates to speak up in the future.
7. Acknowledge feedback and new ideas – While you may not be able to act on all of the feedback people provide, it’s critical to acknowledge the feedback or ideas that were shared. People know that not all suggestions are turned into action, but they do want to know that their ideas have been heard and considered. After people have shared their thoughts and ideas, let them know that their ideas will be considered and that you appreciate their willingness to share.8
8. Ask for suggestions and feedback – In team meetings and one-on-ones, let people know that you welcome their suggestions, ideas, and feedback, especially when it challenges or is in disagreement with the current view. When an opposing viewpoint is shared, allow them to share their entire viewpoint, solicit questions and perspectives from others, and acknowledge that their opinions will be considered.
9. Integrate feedback forums into your routines – Use practices like ‘round robins’ where everyone gets to contribute during your meetings or rotate assigning the ‘host’ duties of the meetings and assign agenda points to attendees to encourage participation and open sharing – practices like these not only help engage team members in your day-to-day work, but they can help team members practice sharing their point of view with others. You can also use project management techniques like RACI mapping (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) to make sure that roles and responsibilities are clear on tasks and remind everyone to keep team members informed.
10. Promote sharing through different feedback channels – In today’s digital world communication goes beyond face-to-face interactions, so encourage your teammates to share openly through various communication tools. Some people may prefer to share via instant messaging platforms (e.g., Google Chat) and email, while other people may prefer sharing through phone calls or video conferences. For remote employees, it’s very important to let them know that their feedback is valued and they are encouraged to share through the various communication channels.
Close the Loop
11. Recognize feedback and suggestions – When employees voice their candid thoughts and ideas, let them know that their feedback will be considered and thank them for speaking up. The two simple words – “thank you” – can go a long way by letting them know that you appreciate their willingness to be open and transparent with their views and it encourages them to share again in the future.
12. Respond to feedback and follow-up – Once you’ve considered the feedback and determined next steps, close the loop with the people who provided the original feedback. Whether you’ve decided to take action or not, it’s important to thank them again for voicing their thoughts and provide an update on any future actions. If you will be taking action, share regular status updates with teammates to let them know that actions are underway.
Lead by Example
13. Share your own feedback and ideas – As your teammates offer up suggestions, comments, and ideas, remember to be vocal in sharing your own thoughts and feedback. If you expect your teammates to share openly and honestly in team meetings, then you need to do the same. However, be careful not to dominate the conversation by oversharing your thoughts and opinions. Invite people to vocalize their feedback, while also providing your thoughts as well.
14. Admit mistakes – Part of communicating openly and honestly is being transparent and sharing when mistakes occur.9 When you’ve fallen short on a commitment or misspoke about a particular project or situation, take accountability for your missteps and apologize to your teammates. Be candid and open when explaining the situation, the specific mistake, key learnings, and how the situation will be resolved and prevented in the future. Encourage people to also be open when encounter challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned.
15. Ask for your own feedback – In addition to asking for feedback on projects and processes, ask your teammates for candid feedback on yourself, including your successes and areas of opportunity. Inviting open and honest feedback about yourself as a leader lets people know they are free to speak transparently and that you are committed to listening to their feedback and improving as a leader.
As both trust and open communication begin to take root in the work environment, people will not only feel encouraged to speak candidly but will share their innovative ideas; they will want to contribute even more.10 This means that a person’s previous experience of learning about business updates on a need-to-know basis and speaking up only when asked is transformed into an engaging and vibrant experience where transparency and openness are championed. People understand and are invested in the goals and successes of the organization, are encouraged to speak up in any situation, and are deeply connected to their work and colleagues.
Learn How to Collect Vital Feedback from Your Team
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2 O’Neill, H.M. and Lenn, D.J. 1995. Voices of Survivors: Words that Downsizing CEOs Should Hear. Academy of Management Executive, 9(4), 23-33.
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6 Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. (2007). Leadership behavior and employee voice: Is the door really open?. Academy of Management Journal, 50(4), 869-884.
7 Moss, S. E., & Sanchez, J. I. (2004). Are your employees avoiding you? Managerial strategies for closing the feedback gap. Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(1), 32-44.
8 Baker, A., Perreault, D., Reid, A., & Blanchard, C. M. (2013). Feedback and organizations: Feedback is good, feedback-friendly culture is better. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 54(4), 260-268.
9 Leroy, H., Anseel, F., Gardner, W. L., & Sels, L. (2015). Authentic leadership, authentic followership, basic need satisfaction, and work role performance: A cross-level study. Journal of Management, 41(6), 1677-1697.
10 Thomas, G. F., Zolin, R., & Hartman, J. L. (2009). The central role of communication in developing trust and its effect on employee involvement. The Journal of Business Communication, 46(3), 287-310.