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Natalia Rossingol

What is Open Communication & Why it Matters in the Workplace

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.

What is open communication?

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:

  1. Trust. When you know you will hear an honest opinion, you do not expect a get knife in your back. You can rely on your colleagues. You can ask for help. This highly reduces the risk of workplace conflict, and lays the foundations for healthy work relationships.   
  2. Psychological safety. It is the ability to express your thoughts without fear of judgment or rejection. A workplace is psychologically safe when employees can openly raise up sensitive issues and be sure that they will not be scolded or fired for challenging someone else’s authority. 
  3. Consistency. For communication to be truly open, it has to be open on a regular basis. This is why it’s important to establish specific open communication policies that would normalize this phenomenon in the workplace. The role of the leader is crucial here – leaders set an example for the whole team and motivate people to act in the same way. 

Examples of open communication

In a workplace, open communication can be practiced through several things:

  1. Open-door policy, when a manager is approachable and ready to listen to employee’s feedback.
  2. Regular meetings, both formal and informal, where team members can discuss issues and provide solutions. These may include yearly, monthly, weekly, or daily group meetings, one-on-ones, and surveys.
  3. Availability of important information, like a company's financial information or serious information on organizational change, to all people whom it concerns. 
  4. The absence of anonymous feedback.
  5. The use of online tools, like Zoom, Loom, Google Drive, and others makes information ready for everyone to use and makes it possible to communicate in asynchronous environments.   

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.

The importance of open communication in the workplace

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? 

Less error

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.   

Better decisions

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.   

Higher levels of trust

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.  

Read on: How to Overcommunicate Effectively as a Manager - The Inside Scoop

The benefits of open communication

It forms a sense of purpose

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:

Nordstrom Rules:

Rule#1: Use your judgments in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

It increases engagement and productivity

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:

  1. Purpose
  2. Development
  3. A caring manager
  4. Ongoing conversations
  5. A focus on strength

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.  

It fosters accountability

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:

  1. What you’re primarily responsible for.
  2. What you both are responsible for.
  3. What the other person is responsible for.

It increases job satisfaction

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.

Barriers to open 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:

  • Only 7% of U.S. workers agree that communication is accurate.
  • Only 26% of workers agree that managers provide them with valid feedback.
  • 4 out of 5 employees start looking for a new job when they get negative feedback from their manager.

But what hinders open communication? There are two main groups of barriers:

Physical 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. 

Psychological barriers

These can exist both on leader-subordinates and peer-peer level, and can occur as a result of different factors:

  • Generation gap
  • Prejudices based on socioeconomic background
  • Previous experience
  • Personality clashes

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.

Tips for effective open communication

So what can you do to create open communication?

  1. Practice transparency from top down. Some leaders are afraid of sharing sensitive information, like news about restructuring, with employees. However, even though it really may cause some chaos and emotional instability among some team members, it may also let people share opinions about the issue and help the leader come up with a better solution.
  2. Establish a culture of feedback. As a manager, be open enough to hear different thoughts about the work going on. Be approachable, work on your communication skills, practice active listening, and take employees’ remarks into account. Regularly update people on their performance results, too.
  3. Build an environment of psychological safety, where no one is humiliated or punished for making mistakes, asking questions, or sharing concerns. Make it a company culture value.
  4. Remove physical barriers. If necessary, restructure departments, both logically (so that people working on the same thing can actually collaborate and openly communicate) and physically (so that they can see each other more often.) Ensure the quality of virtual communication by implementing the use of technology.


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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