How to Foster a Culture of Open Communication at Work

The following is a guest post from Carole Wehn (CultureWise). Carole works behind the scenes at HPC, writing, editing, and proofreading online learning materials. 

Transitioning from Quiet Quitting to Remarkable Success

By Carole Wehn

headhshot of Carole Wehn

“My door is always open.” How many times have you said that to your team? The implication is that I'm here. I'm receptive to your comments and suggestions. I’m ready to listen. And even though staff members stop in to chat and give updates, it doesn’t mean you’re getting the full story. 

An open-door policy signals to employees that you are approachable. Every management tome tells you to adopt this policy. But it requires staff to take the first step. And not everyone is comfortable sharing unsolicited feedback, ideas, or concerns. Further, they may only tell you what they think you want to hear. 

Organizational Silence 

As the ones closest to the work, your team members are the most knowledgeable about process effectiveness and efficiency. They also have valuable opinions about product viability, customer satisfaction, and the organization's health. But they frequently won't volunteer those opinions. 

Harvard Business Review researchers call this “organizational silence,” and the cost of this can be huge. They observed, “Employees often feel they have little to gain, or perhaps something to lose that may be less important than their job, but still significant (status, a promotion, a raise) by venturing forward with their ideas for solving problems, improving processes, or otherwise helping the organization compete.  

Speaking up primarily benefits the organization, not the speaker. Hence employees may feel a minimal obligation to do so. Amy C. Edmondson, the author of The Fearless Organization, further notes that any advantages from speaking up take time to materialize if they do at all. Yet withholding information provides the immediate benefit of risk avoidance. 

Even when employees do speak up, research shows that over 40 percent also hold back when they feel they have nothing to gain or something to lose. 

In 2014, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, addressed cultural changes needed following a recall due to faulty ignition switches. She commented, “Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.” 

Similarly, the Challenger space shuttle’s 1986 explosion was largely attributed to a culture of employees not speaking up. GM and NASA established procedures to address the shortcomings, but the cultural changes proved harder to implement. 

Make Speaking Up a Requirement 

GM and NASA experienced severe consequences of employees' hesitance to speak up. Hopefully, people in your organization are not sitting on information that could prevent similar catastrophes. But it’s important to imbed a culture where employees are expected to share their concerns and ideas.   

As author Ron Carucci wrote in Harvard Business Review, “If you want people in your organization and leaders on your team to routinely raise difficult issues, regardless of who does or doesn’t benefit, you have to do more than let them know it’s safe to do so. You have to make it an expectation, and back it up with processes and behavior that reinforce it.”  

Your example speaks volumes here. Research has shown that people become less likely to speak up as they climb the corporate ladder. They may feel there is more at stake. It’s not just fear of losing a job – it’s also fear of losing power. In particular, they hesitate to speak up about a colleague's area of responsibility. 

As a leader, examine your tendencies to hold back or not explain the full picture before encouraging your team members. If you are unwilling to take risks by pointing out concerns, you may also be subconsciously telling your staff to suppress their thoughts.  

Speaking up is not the same as saying whatever is on your mind. It is not about being brutally honest without regard to our delivery or the recipient. David J. Friedman, CEO of CultureWise and author of Fundamentally Different, notes, 

“Speaking straight includes the concept of ‘forwarding’ what we’re up to. It’s being direct, but in a way that enables the other person to truly hear us and that improves the likelihood of positive movement toward our team objectives. The whole point of speaking straight is to forward the action. It, therefore, requires an extraordinary amount of thoughtfulness as well as a deep commitment to being ‘for each other.’” 

Create Psychological Safety  

Before employees are comfortable offering suggestions or raising concerns, they need to feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety is the belief that one can speak up without fear of punishment or humiliation. Finding this comfort level becomes even more challenging in today’s uncertain business climate when people fear losing their jobs.  

Every organization has a myth of someone who spoke up and then was let go, even though the facts don’t generally bear this out. But especially in unstable business environments, employees must share ideas, point out issues, and take intelligent risks. 

Authors Constance Noonan Hadley, Mark Mortensen, and Amy C. Edmondson offer several suggestions for building psychological safety in Harvard Business Review: 

  1. Clarify the rationale for speaking up 
  2. Invite specific input 
  3. Eliminate punishment 
  4. Amplify rewards

Since speaking up seems to benefit the organization rather than the individual, show your employees the advantages to them. Help team members see how they all contribute to the company. Even if they don't work in a particular area, they may have observations and suggestions to improve that group’s operations. Plus, by speaking their mind, an employee shows management they are a critical thinker, creative mind, and a team player with the organization's best interest at heart.  

Rather than open your office door or a Slack channel and invite people to stop by if they want to talk, be intentional. Set a meeting to solicit ideas about a specific topic. Ask questions during monthly one-on-ones such as: 

  • What should I know but don’t? 
  • What do you need from me to do your best work? 
  • How can I better support your risk-taking? 
  • What is your biggest frustration, and how can I help with it? 
  • What have you been trying to tell me, but I’m not hearing? 
  • What should our company do that we are not doing currently? 
  • Which of your talents are you not using in your current role? 
  • What part of your job would you eliminate if you could? 

These types of questions encourage dialogue. They also get at issues that can help drive employee engagement. Make it clear that “everything’s great” is not the answer you’re looking for. 

If you are giving a presentation, set expectations for those present to give feedback at the end. It's always important to let meeting attendees and even email recipients know what you expect to accomplish and what you want from them. Let them know you value their input and seek an improved outcome or approval to proceed with an idea. 

Coach for Courageous Speech 

In addition to raising issues about the workplace, some people find it hard to have conversations with the involved co-workers. Employees at all levels struggle to be direct with others at work. Some people feel that directness equates to rudeness. Many fear confrontation. They may be afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. But as Charles Weathers wrote in Forbes, 

“Holding a direct conversation is one of the best things you can do to strengthen your relationship with another person.” 

Some organizations operate by going through the chain of command. For example, if you have a concern with a co-worker, you go to your boss, who talks to their boss, who talks to the other colleague. But this method is ineffective and does nothing to help address the relationship. 

The fear of having a direct conversation can often be worse than the conversation itself. People may feel that they are waiting for the perfect moment, which doesn’t exist. Usually, when people have a pit in their stomach thinking about a discussion, it needs to happen. 

Think about your tone. Remember the adage, ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it.’ Weathers suggests using “I” statements since this avoids any sense of personal attack. For example, “I may be wrong about this, but it appears that your department….” Or “I may not have all the facts, but from my perspective…” Then ask the other person to provide their assessment from their point of view. 

Make it clear that you want to understand their perspective. You don’t want them to tell you what they think you want to hear. 

You can also preface your comments with a fair warning. Consider saying, "In the interest of straight talk" or something similar. It sets the other party up for what may be a difficult conversation and avoids catching them off guard. You can also say, “This is difficult for me, but I need to be honest with you about something.” Letting the other person know it’s uncomfortable for you conveys that you are not out to attack them. On the contrary, you are looking to help them. 

Receive Feedback with Appreciation 

Be open-minded when you receive feedback, both in your body language and what you say. Avoid immediately jumping to the defense. Instead, take a moment to absorb what's said and ask questions to gain understanding. Be willing to change your mind or direction based on the new information. Remember that it was likely hard for the person to deliver this news, so acknowledge and thank them for their directness. 

As the leader, you don't have to implement every suggestion employees raise. Certainly, those that address safety or ethical concerns should be investigated. But you must support the employee's willingness to speak up. Your team members will be watching your body language and responses, which will affect their desire to contribute ideas in the future. Shut down any signs of disrespect when people speak up in team meetings. 

And err on the side of too much acknowledgment when you receive feedback and when your team members speak directly with one another. Edmondson and her colleagues wrote: 

“Speaking up is an act of generosity. It involves an employee doing something that feels potentially harmful to them individually but benefits the collective. So thank them – publicly, privately, often, and with sincerity.” 

Inova Staffing Insights

Dan Barnett, President & CEO of Inova Staffing, says:

headshot of Dan Barnett

The concept of an open-door policy is one that many of us in leadership positions advocate for, and rightfully so. It's a symbol of approachability and a willingness to listen. However, the reality is that not everyone on our teams feels comfortable taking that first step, and even when they do, they might not always share their true thoughts and concerns. It's not enough to proclaim an open-door policy—we must actively seek feedback, ask the right questions and be open to change. Courageous conversations, as difficult as they may be, are essential for strengthening relationships and fostering a culture of open communication.

Interested in More Employment Resources? 

Whether looking for a job or seeking new candidates, the Better Together Blog is packed with advice and insights to help you succeed. Subscribe below to receive the latest content in your inbox—directly from staffing industry experts. 

INO_Modified Visual Blog Subscription CTA_V1-2

Enter your email address to receive updates when we publish new content.