How to Encourage an Open and Honest Communications Environment

True or false: If you are a manager espousing that you have an open and honest communications culture, it’s fine to check and compose emails while holding meetings with your employees.

If you answered “True,” you are not unlike a number of managers that we have interviewed during communication audits that we conduct regularly for Fortune 500 organizations.

You also don’t have an open and honest communications environment.

Why not? Let me put it this way, how comfortable would you be going in to talk about an issue with your boss if he or she didn’t make eye contact with you but instead had more interaction with the computer than with you during your meeting?

It never ceases to amaze me that well-educated, innovative executives can develop brilliant plans to improve shareholder value, but struggle to communicate with and motivate the very people most needed to implement their turnaround plans – their employees.

A Fortune 500 organization president retained JRS Consulting to identify why employees rated the company’s environment low in the area of open and honest communications. Our confidential interviews revealed that staff members were reluctant to disagree with the president and her leadership team out of fear of retribution. They described a forced, “happy” culture that named “open and honest communications” as a corporate value while managers actively discouraged dissenting opinions through behaviors such as the email checking during meetings described above. As a result, employees didn’t voice concerns and continued working on test products even when they suspected (or knew) that they would ultimately fail.

Fortunately for our client and for similar organizations, open and honest communications can be learned behaviors. Good communications are not always innate. While some people are fortunate to be born with “good people skills,” others are not. Although it's a well known fact that managers often get promoted for business reasons that don't always include communication skills, that's not an excuse for things to stay that way. If conditions stay the same, you'll pay for it in terms of lost productivity among frustrated employees.

Most organizations espouse a culture of open and honest communications, but it’s not enough to say the words or name them as a corporate value. As any of the thousands of employees who we interview could tell you, you have to walk the talk if you truly want managers and employees to share ideas and opinions. In other words, employees are much more likely to believe the communications environment that they actually experience in the office than the “openness and honesty” posters that they see in the lobby. That means you must create an environment where managers clearly know the corporation values communication and employees feel comfortable speaking up.

Following are 10 Best Practices in Open and Honest Communications that we have developed, based on interviews and observations of Fortune 500 corporate cultures.

1. Ask for input and make it clear that the management team must make time to listen to employees’ questions and suggestions. This may sound simple and obvious, but it’s important to communicate that management, in fact, wants to hear from employees. At one client company, a member of senior management actually responded to an employee’s interest in providing input to a corporate initiative by stating brusquely at a large employee meeting, “I don’t have time for input.”

2. Engage in reflecting listening. Encourage managers to clearly show that they have heard employees’ opinions. One way to do this is to take a moment for consideration and perhaps repeat back to the employee what has been said. For example, one company president was astounded to hear that his employees didn’t consider him to be interested in their opinions. We explained that his employees had told us that he tended to rapidly fire back his own opinion without any indication that he had heard or considered the employee’s idea. As we coached this leader in effective listening skills, he sheepishly acknowledged hearing similar feedback from his spouse.

3. Greet employees when you see them. It’s not necessary to know every employee’s name, but a simple, “Good morning!” or “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” helps create a more open and comfortable environment.

4. Make an effort to get to know employees beyond their role as assistant product manager or supply chain coordinator. Ask what they did on the weekend, how their children or parents are doing or where they grew up. Showing an interest in employees communicates that they are valued beyond their work -- as human beings.

5. Provide forums for information and opinion exchange. Whether called Town Halls or All Hands Meetings or “Breakfast With Tom,” invite employees to gather regularly, hear briefly from leadership and ask questions. Try not to use PowerPoint presentations at these sessions. Consider having management walk around a little with a microphone or sit on a stool. The frequency of these meetings can vary depending upon what’s going on in the organization. Most companies hold them twice a year or quarterly, but this can be increased during times of great activity or uncertainty, such as during a merger.

6. When meeting with employees, establish eye contact and make it clear they have your attention. Don’t check email or take phone calls. It’s better to have a short meeting in which employees feel they have your attention than to allow interruptions that suggest you really aren’t all that interested.

7. Recognize employees for their contributions. When employees in our focus groups talk about recognition, they always emphasize that “I’m not talking about money.” In fact, they are most often talking about two words, “Thank you.” Thanking employees for taking the lead on a project, staying late or putting in extra time goes a long way toward establishing an environment that fosters good communications.

8. Schedule regular times for small meetings with employees and honor those commitments. Employees often tell us that their manager announces a series of bi-weekly Friday morning staff meetings, holds the first one or two of them, and then becomes “too busy” for any further sessions. Consider being conservative when establishing such meetings – don’t suggest a schedule that will be unrealistic.

9. Show employees that opinions are heard and respected. This doesn’t mean managers have to act on every suggestion. Employees understand that not every idea is appropriate or realistic. It does mean that it’s important to tell employees their ideas were heard and considered, perhaps in an article in the company publication that reports on employee focus group findings or in a section of the president’s address that acknowledges the numerous suggestions received about the new health care plan.

10. Consider your company’s supervisors to be like gold in the communications process — they are. Extensive research, including our own, has shown that employees turn to their supervisors for “the skinny,” “a reality check” or “the scoop.” Even for information communicated from the CEO or other ways within an organization, employees will follow up with their own supervisors to make sure an announcement is “for real.” It’s critical that supervisors have been appropriately briefed and are skilled communicators to support corporate communications.

In short, good communications mean good business. Beyond stating that an organization values ”open and honest communications,” it’s absolutely critical that staff from the CEO on down practice behaviors that facilitate information exchange and encourage honest input from every level.

Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on
© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2008