Open communication is a pillar of successful organizations. Learn why it matters and how to communicate openly in our short, no-nonsense guide.
How often do you get misunderstood at work? Does it ever happen that you misinterpret your coworkers' words? Do you ever feel you could do your tasks better if you had more information and if that informaiton was delivered on time?
In a business setting, communication is everything. However, even though we do talk to each other, our communication is not always effective. We still lack clarity. We fill information gaps with our own assumptions and suspicions, and this considerably complicates our lives.
But there is a solution. Below we will discuss the power of open communication – an approach that really makes a difference.
Open communication is the ability to express your thoughts freely while interacting with other people. In a workplace, it refers to the ability of employees to share and receive feedback, provide ideas and suggestions, and raise concerns, which makes them active participants in the work process.
Open communication is about honesty, availability, and transparency. It means that you have to tell the truth as it is and be willing to hear it in return. It also means you have access to the information you need, and you have to provide the information to those who need it, too. Finally, it means nothing can be kept secret – so there is no chance for politicking or intrigues.
Open communication is based on the following principles:
In a workplace, open communication can be practiced through several things:
Let’s take a look at some of the companies that encourage open communication:
Google. Google prioritizes direct and open communication, encouraging healthy discussions. It’s a highly innovative company, so it’s interested in hiring people who are willing to come up with ideas and provide an honest opinion about the ideas of others. To help employees stay connected, it uses tools like Google+, Google Groups, and Hangouts.
Southwest Airlines. Famous for its friendly culture, Southwest Airlines has fostered a communication model that describes the goals, values, and expectations. Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and later the CEO, was a perfect role model, returning calls and emails from employees on a regular basis.
Pixar. The company has developed a special approach for feedback exchange – Brainstrust. Braintrust is a group of colleagues who meet together to push each other to excellence. It works this way: every few months, people gather in a room to discuss a movie they’re working on. Their purpose is to identify and solve problems, and everyone is supposed to be candid.
Zappos. Zappos’ culture is built on strong collaboration and communication. It has established several programs to foster open communication – for example, a weekly “All Hands” meeting and internal social networks.
HubSpot. To maintain healthy communication, the company uses a variety of tools, such as Slack, Zoom, and Google Drive.
Any organization exists on the interaction and collaboration of team members. The final product or service of any company is the result of many peoples’ work. In other words, everyone depends on someone else. For this reason, it’s impossible to provide good quality without communication.
However, while in organizations communication is a natural process, it doesn’t mean it really brings value. When there is no trust, when people do not provide honest feedback and ideas, communication is simply a formality.
So why exactly is open communication important?
A failure to openly communicate leads to pretty specific negative consequences, like serious technical errors.
In her book “The Fearless Organization,” Amy Edmondson mentions many examples of poor communication caused by the fear of appearing incompetent or infuriating authorities.
For example, in 1977, there happened a horrible air crash, which actually could have been avoided. The pilots noticed problems with the plane, but the captain refused to stop taking off. Unfortunately, the pilots were not ready to insist. As a result, around 600 people died.
Multiple perspectives often help find the best solutions. Very often, team members have valuable knowledge and experience. Besides, when everyone is given the right to a voice, collaboration is much more effective – people tend to buy into the decisions they suggested by themselves.
Effective communication in the workplace helps create a friendly environment, where colleagues treat each other with respect. This motivates people to work harder and produce great results.
By telling employees why their work is important, how it fits in the overall picture of the project's success, and what their personal role is, managers inspire their people to move forward.
In his book “Build To Last,” Jim Collins describes the case of Nordstrom, which perfectly illustrates how this works.
Nordstrom’s core purpose is “to provide outstanding customer service”. In the company, this purpose is sometimes achieved in really curious ways. For example, one employee ironed a newly-bought shirt for a customer who needed it that afternoon, and the other one personally knitted a shawl of a certain length for an elderly customer, because the customer was using a wheelchair and didn’t want the shawl to get caught in the spokes of the wheelchair.
How does the company inspire employees to do things like that? They issue handouts for new employees where they clearly state the purpose:
Rule#1: Use your judgments in all situations. There will be no additional rules.
When team roles are clear, and everybody knows what’s expected from them, it becomes easier to focus on tasks. Unnecessary work is eliminated, so employees don’t waste their time. This way, the quality of work increases.
According to Gallup research, communication in the workplace plays a very important role in encouraging productivity. Look at the list of factors that drive engagement:
Basically, 4 out of the 5 (except for development) concern communication. Employees need support from a manager who would talk to them about the value of their contribution and direct their efforts:
People want purpose and meaning from their work. They want to be known for what they’re good at.
Expressing clear expectations, managers encourage people to take ownership of their work. Everyone should be responsible for their part.
This is why it’s important to assign clear roles and responsibilities. This information can be provided in job descriptions – however, it’s also important to reinforce it by holding regular team meetings and individual check-ins.
Sometimes there may occur a responsibility overlap – a situation where more than one person is responsible for the same tasks. To get rid of erroneous assumptions, Scott Berkun, the author of “Making Things Happen” recommends sitting down with a person you work with and writing down three lists:
When people work smoothly and are in good relationships with their coworkers, it makes them satisfied with their job. This helps reduce turnover, which is very costly for a business.
For example, the results of the study, conducted by C. Curado and P. L. Henrique, proved that while there are several paths to employee satisfaction, they all require the simultaneous existence of three levels of communication – the organization, the leader, and the peers. This includes organizational culture, leader-related influence, and peer support. This is all about communication.
Unfortunately, despite the obvious benefits of encouraging open communication, many companies are not great at it. Look at the statistics provided by Gallup research:
But what hinders open communication? There are two main groups of barriers:
Physical space we work in is crucial for the quality of communication. Inefficient space organization is one of the reasons for poor communication. When departments that work closely together are situated on different floors or in different buildings, it makes it more difficult for people to communicate openly.
This is why many companies have switched to open-space workplaces. However, such workplaces have a serious drawback – the chances are you will be continuously distracted.
As an alternative, you could use technologies - it allows you to stay in touch all the time, and have access to all information, using tools like Google Drive. All it takes is proper organization of the virtual communication, which will let you work well even in an asynchronous workplace.
The same concerns open-door policies. When leaders’ offices are situated separately from the rest of the offices, and sometimes even guarded by security, it sends two powerful messages to the employees. Firstly, you’re not respected. Secondly, you cannot hope to get important information from your boss, even if you’re directly affected by it.
These can exist both on leader-subordinates and peer-peer level, and can occur as a result of different factors:
The impact of psychological barriers is more detrimental than that of the physical ones. Not only does it hinder open communication, but it also causes workplace conflict, which, in turn, leads to work-related stress.
To overcome psychological barriers and communicate openly, leaders should encourage a culture of mutual respect and psychological safety, which would help establish strong bonds among team members. This can be done through team building activities, specific policies, and by setting an example from above.
So what can you do to create open communication?
Open communication is incredibly important for the success of any project. It literally drives teams forward, providing them with all the instruments they need for effective work – full and timely information, a sense of purpose, and the feeling of appreciation and safety.
When every single team member is empowered to openly discuss anything that seems important to them, work attains more value. So try to implement open communication into your work routine - this way, you can transform mundane processes into an adventure full of meaning.
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