Proven Ways to Encourage Open Communication in the Workplace

Many organisations today loudly champion a culture of honest and open communication, but unfortunately most of them don’t get down to actually creating it. You have to walk the talk if you truly want managers and employees to share ideas and opinions.

Many employees are reluctant to disagree with their company’s leadership and management out of fear of retribution. Many companies have a forced, “happy” culture that names “open communication” as a corporate value while managers actively and/or passively discourage dissenting opinions.

As a result, employees will avoid voicing their concerns at all costs and prefer to continue doing things as instructed by their bosses even when they suspect (or know) that there is a better way.

Most organisations have room for improvement when it comes to encouraging open communication. Employees often struggle to open up and speak freely when communicating with their managers and some of the most common reasons why they feel this way are:

  • managers never bothering to ask for employees’ thoughts, views and opinions;
  • managers not listening, responding, or taking any action based on employee input;
  • managers not stopping to look at the employee and acknowledge what they are saying;
  • managers condescendingly discounting employees’ ideas, views and concerns, and;
  • managers getting mad and/or confrontational thus inspiring fear of retaliation.

Employees are much more likely to believe the communications environment they actually experience in their day-to-day work at the office no matter how glossy the “openness and honesty” posters that they see in the lobby are.

This means your organisation must create an environment where managers clearly know the company values communication and employees feel comfortable speaking up.

Opening up communication takes commitment and intentional effort but the results are totally worth it. Here’s how to go about encouraging open communication in order to create such an environment.

Acknowledge that your employees’ views are important

The first step in opening up communication is to admit to yourself that your staff members have a unique and yet very important viewpoint of what is going in your company and industry as a whole.

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Your employees are right on the front line of your customer service so they are always the first to notice the future needs and demands of your customers. When you take the time and energy to gather their thoughts and observations, you increase your organisation’s chances of staying agile and innovative.

Ask your employees for input

Unfortunately, many managers often respond to an employee’s interest in providing input by saying they don’t have the time for it. Make it clear that the managers must make time to ask your employees for suggestions.

This may sound simple and obvious, but it’s important to communicate unambiguously that management, in fact, wants to hear from employees: ideas, concerns as well as questions.

Listen to your employees reflectively

Encourage managers to clearly show that they have heard employees’ opinions. One way to do this is to pause a bit before replying and perhaps repeat back to the employee what they said instead of rapidly firing back your own opinion without any indication that you have heard or considered their view.

Show your employee that you are not just hearing what they are saying, but that you also recognise and understand the emotions behind it. Tell them the particular emotions that you are detecting in their tone or body language but don’t discount or invalidate them, but rather affirm and validate them.

For example, reflect by saying “I hear the concern in your voice,” instead of “There’s no need to be concerned” or “I can see how agitated you are by this,” instead of “You need to relax.”

Engage your employees on a personal level

Greet your employees when you see them. You don’t have to know every employee’s name (no one expects you to), but a simple, “Good morning!” or “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” helps create a more relaxed and comfortable environment in which employees can feel confident enough to be more open.

Make an effort to get to know your employees beyond their role in the company. Ask what they did on the weekend, how their kids or parents are doing or how their favourite sports team is doing. Showing interest in employees communicates that they are valued beyond their work — as human beings.

Open Communication in the workplace

Image: Stock Snap

Be respectful to your employees

When your employees come to you with problems or suggestions, make it clear they have your full attention; stop what you are doing, look them straight in the eye, listen, and ask questions about what they are saying.

Don’t give employees the impression that they are not important by not acknowledging them, continuing to type, checking email, taking phone calls or rummaging through your files.

Acknowledge your employees’ input

Managers don’t have to act on every suggestion. Employees understand that not every idea is appropriate or realistic but they just want to know that their ideas were heard and considered.

Even if you can’t act on it, sharing your employees’ input in the next company publication, for example goes a long way. They key is to show your employees that their opinions are heard and respected.

Recognise your employees

When employees say they want more recognition, company leadership often assumes they are talking about money – that they want a bonus or raise. In fact, they are most often talking about two simple words, “Thank you.”

Expressing gratitude employees for taking the lead on a project, staying late or putting in extra time goes a long way toward encouraging open communication in your company.

Make a schedule and stick to it

Schedule regular times for small meetings with employees and honour those commitments. Employees often complain about managers announcing a series of bi-weekly staff meetings, holding the first few and then becoming “too busy” for any further sessions.

Don’t suggest a schedule that will be unrealistic – you are better off arranging for fortnightly meetings that you can actually consistently honour.

Describe instead of judging

When discussing an employee’s behavior or a decision they made, avoid judging their behavior or the reasoning behind their decision. Instead, describe what you observed.

For example, “I noticed status reports have been a few days late for three weeks now,” instead of, “You’ve become lazy and don’t seem to care about your work.” The former leaves room for the employee to explain themselves and/or commit to improving while the latter simply pushes them to disengage and feel ashamed or agitated.

Don’t shy away from problems

Should a problem arise in the workplace or an employee’s performance weaken, have the courage to see the situation for what it really is and address it in its nascent stages before it grows too big to handle instead of shying away from it or pretending it doesn’t exist.

Furthermore, when you avoid facing the performance issue everyone else on the team knows you are not capable of holding people accountable, which in turn undermines their trust and confidence in you.

In Summary

Encouraging honest and open communication takes more than just talking about it in your mission statement and pres releases. It requires putting in place active measures that foster an open exchange of information and ideas among employees at every level of your organisation.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.