What is open communication?
Open communication means that each person in a conversation is able to share their point of view honestly and to have it taken on board in a constructive spirit. Most people see open and honest communication as a key ingredient to strong relationships outside work, and those qualities are just as important in a business.
Open communication in the workplace can help avert a number of potential issues, including a poor workplace culture, a lack of innovation, and low employee engagement.
In a workplace context, open communication applies to:
Interpersonal communication – regular interactions within teams, between employees and their managers, and during informal conversations around the workplace.
Internal communications – i.e. the one-to-many communications that are used in larger companies when leadership is addressing the wider workforce. Also, communication that goes in the other direction via employee feedback channels.
Formal communication – information exchanged as part of formal processes, like hiring, employee reviews, redundancy and promotions.
How we communicate depends in part on our personal communication style. Every workplace will feature a mix of communication styles, so it’s important to understand the range of styles we might encounter.
Typically, theories of communication styles organize individuals according to two axes:
Open or reserved
Open communicators find it easy to express their thoughts, feelings and opinions and will do so readily. Connection is important to them and their tone of voice, body language and eye contact all promote getting to know the other person.
In contrast, a reserved communicator will ‘hold back’ and can take some time to get to know. Their posture and mannerisms might seem more formal compared to the open communicator.
Direct or indirect
Direct communicators say it like it is. They want information to be clear, and they want to communicate quickly and energetically. It’s more important to them to get their point across than to be polite, and they can even come across as domineering.
Indirect communicators are much more circumspect. They proceed cautiously when communicating and may take their time to think their points through before communicating them. They tend to be precise and detailed.
These two behavioral scales interact, giving us people who are open and indirect, for example - they may be warm and personable but not forceful in their opinions, or reserved and direct, where there is little emotional or personal expression but a strong point of view.
To foster open communication at work, it’s important to understand the variety of personal communication styles and make sure they’re all given equal opportunity to have their voices heard.
What’s the importance of open communication?
Achieving open communication at work brings many benefits to an organization and the people in it.
Engagement and performance
Engagement, meaning that employees have a deep personal connection to their job, increases when communication is open. This may be because having your voice heard makes you feel more valued and capable. A study by Salesforce showed that employees who felt their voices were heard were 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.
Open communication has obvious benefits when it comes to teamwork. A free exchange of ideas and the ability of each person to make a contribution means that collaboration is richer. Without a conscious practice of open communication, there’s a risk that more direct and open personalities take up more than their share of conversational space, or move projects forward at a pace that leaves those with slower communication styles behind.
Risk and innovation
It’s the same story with creativity and innovation. Before it can benefit from employees’ ideas, a company needs to create a culture where those ideas can be shared openly. Psychological safety, where ideas and opinions can be shared even if they’re negative or unwelcome to some, is an essential component of innovation.
To feel psychologically safe, an individual must believe that they won’t face negative repercussions, such as hostility, mocking or dismissive responses, for their suggestions or for taking risks. So open communication is fertile soil for new ideas, some of which could end up becoming successful new products and services. It also makes risk – which is crucial for innovation – less daunting.
Open communication can also help reduce conflict at work, not least because it helps everyone understand each other’s perspectives. Managers skilled in communication and conflict resolution have an important role to play in helping resolve or avoid team conflict, as they can act as mediators in an open discussion.
Accountability and growth
Another area of potential benefit is driving accountability. When open communication is the norm in a workplace, it’s less likely that people will try to avoid accountability or dodge blame. When someone feels able to take responsibility for their actions without fear, they can learn from the experience even if the outcome of their decisions is poor.
An open communication example: ‘Failure parties’
Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly reportedly held ‘failure parties’ to celebrate great and daring scientific ideas that failed. By opening up about failures, they could discuss what went wrong and formulate a different strategy. Many of Lilly’s most successful medications were ‘failures’ that turned out to be useful for a different purpose - for example the osteoporosis drug Evista, originally developed as a contraceptive.
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How to build a culture of open communication in the workplace
For people’s thoughts and feelings to be shared and heard openly, there needs to be a foundation of strong communication skills on the part of both listeners and speakers. These don’t develop by accident. Here are some of the ways a business can begin to build open communication.
Open door policy
An open door policy helps create opportunities for informal communication across different levels of your business. Whether the door is literally or figuratively open, it means that employees can come and speak with a senior member of staff regardless of their own position in the company.
Rewarding open communication
To help everyone in your company understand what open communication looks like, and to encourage it in your company culture, you can recognize and reward instances of open communication. This can be done using a formal approach, where open communication is built into objectives and KPIs, or more informally through praise or employee awards.
Leading by example
It’s well established that leaders can shape their company culture through their own behavior. Modeling open communication at the highest levels of a company can set the tone for how others behave. A survey study of over 500 US employees found that symmetrical (two-way) internal communication and responsive leadership communication helped create a positive emotional culture at work. In the same vein, managers who exhibit open communication can help shape the behavior of those who report to them.
Open communication doesn’t happen by accident. For some companies, training and development that focuses on communication could be the key to changing how people interact. Training can help employees understand different communication styles and give them a toolkit to build skills like active listening and conflict resolution.
One way to let employees know you value their ideas and suggestions is to carve out space and time for idea-sharing to happen. That could mean regular idea sessions, for example quarterly workshops, offsite events or hack days, or creating always-on idea channels, like an ideas group or thread on your internal instant messaging platform or a whiteboard in shared space.
Use employee listening
Employee listening is a growing trend in people science and HR. It consists of regular feedback collection from employees to build up a data-based overview of how they’re thinking and feeling about their employment. It offers measurable benefits to those who use it, as it can help guide decision-making and indicate where employers can act to avoid problems or retain at-risk employees.
In a 2021 study, 45% of companies said employee listening is one of the top areas where people analytics is adding value. Employee listening can be carried out through surveys, SMS, internal focus groups, voice, IM and other channels.
Don’t hide the bad news
Open communication from leadership to the wider business is easy and rewarding when things are going well, but it can be more difficult when there are problems. As many businesses learned during the pandemic, trust and honesty between a company and its employees is especially important during a crisis.
Being able to communicate about problems and the action being taken to resolve them will prevent rumors, uncertainty and anxiety from spreading. It may even open the door to innovative suggestions from employees that help set things right.
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