With discrimination and justice on the forefront of so many people’s mind, it is important that leaders know how to address this topic with open communication in the workplace. Too often, topics like civil rights, equality, and fairness are talked about in whispered tones. Many leaders are afraid to have open discussions about issues on which they may be judged. Most leaders want to treat people fairly and equitably, but it is not always easy. Leaders are in positions of control and power, so when others are watching how they wield that power and can question and challenge them, it can be unsettling.
There are steps that can be taken to create an atmosphere where conversations can safely happen in the open rather than in the shadows. And there are ways that leaders can be proactive in championing issues rather than seeking to avoid challenges.
One Employee Opinion Survey shows that when 100,000 employees were asked to respond to the statement, “Managers and supervisors at my company seek the opinions and thoughts of employees who work here” the response was only 62.8% favorable. That leaves a lot of room for leaders to improve opportunities for safe and open communication.
“Honest, open communication is the only street that leads us into the real world… We then begin to grow as never before. And once we are on this road, happiness cannot be far away.” John Powell
Strategies for Open Communication
Let’s start on the process side and begin with the opportunity’s leaders can provide to gain input and insight from others.
Everyone has different levels of comfort when expressing their concerns so you need a variety of ways in which you can listen to people. This includes one on one conversations, small group discussion, and larger setting opportunities. You also need to have a mix of discussions that are lead by you so people will feel that you are engaging with them, and discussions that are led by someone else – without you present – in case people want to offer concerns about you.
For these to work, they must be truly anonymous. People need to know that their responses can’t be traced back to them, either through profile questions (your work team, number of years employed, etc.) or through tracing the IP address. One way to achieve this is to use an outside entity to conduct the survey and provide the results. It is important that all the results are made available to everyone so they can see what the leaders see.
360 Degree Reviews
While these can be cumbersome, they can provide a wealth of information. This allows the person or team conducting the review to gather input from everyone who is involved with the person being reviewed. This includes supervisors, peers, subordinates, customers, partners, or whomever else has routine contact with the person to express their opinions about the person in a confidential format where responses will be merged with the responses from others.
Informal Social Outings
Getting people out of their everyday setting is a great way to help everyone relax and feel more at ease. This allows communication to feel less formal and therefore helps people to open up. The discussions, especially when done in small groups, feel more informal, friendly, and supportive, which all contributes to an atmosphere of sharing.
“Studies show that a trusting workplace increases employees’ level of happiness, work effort, productivity, and engagement. It also provides an environment that encourages open communication and promotes people to share their ideas.” Arthur Miller
Skills Leaders Need for Open Communication
Putting all the strategies for open communication in place is one thing, having the leadership skills to execute them successfully is another. Here are some of the interpersonal skills leaders need to develop to support open communication.
Leaders must give honesty to receive trust from others. This means that you must be genuine in your interactions with others and provide truthful and complete information. Your decision-making processes must be transparent. The more people know what to expect from you, the more dependable you will be viewed. Your words and actions must match. Dependability inspires trust.
Facilitation is where leaders must put their own opinions aside and focus on what is being presented to them. Here are some quick tips for facilitation.
- Ask rather than Tell
- Describe rather than Judge
- What and How questions rather than Why questions
- Acknowledge rather than Avoid
- Attend rather than Ignore
- Reflect rather than Preach
- Summarize rather than Conclude
Body Language Expertise
Leaders need to be experts in both reading the body language of others, and in controlling their own body language. Non-verbal communication is the expression of feelings, emotions, attitudes, and thoughts through body movements. There are a lot of components to non-verbal. Here are the highlights.
- Facial expressions, postures & gestures
- Eye contact
- The distance between people as they interact
- The use of time
- Variations in pitch, speed, volume, and pauses, and
- Physical appearance always contributes towards how people perceive you
More than any other mode of communication, non-verbal behavior is most closely tied to cultural norms. This leaves it open to the greatest range of interpretation and opportunities for a message to be received with an unintended meaning.
Active Listening Skills
Leaders must let people know that they have been heard. Here are some quick tips for active listening.
- Engage in eye contact with the speaker
- Keep your body language open and receptive
- Watch speakers body language for added perspective to their words
- Do not interrupt
- Paraphrase what you heard and ask questions to clarify your understanding
- Encourage them to tell you more
- Continue this process until the speaker has shared everything they want to say
You can have all the opportunities for bringing thoughts and concerns forward you want, but if people don’t feel like they have been heard, they won’t trust you. The first step is acknowledging people through active listening; the second step is following through with action.
People need to see action to trust that you have heard them. This doesn’t mean you necessarily fix whatever it was that they brought to your attention. What it means is that you acknowledge the concern, and clearly explain what you can and cannot do. You must show that you have done something with the information you’ve been given. That may mean alerting someone higher up the chain, having a private conversation with another party involved, bringing in a mediator, or publicly addressing the issue and citing new procedures related to the topic. Whatever it is, you need to demonstrate that the issue has not been ignored and you took some sort of appropriate action.
Stress Management Abilities
Everyone needs an opportunity to vent, that goes for leaders as well. But within the workplace leaders must be calm, open-minded, supportive, and fair. That means leaders need to establish a place outside of work for their venting and to center themselves emotionally.
Stress management activities may include talking to a trusted confidant who is outside of your work circle, meditation, exercise, or immersion in any personal hobby. Make sure that if you use journaling or any type of audio or audio-visual tool for expressing yourself, those need to be kept in your home. Anything you keep in the office could be considered company property and you must keep your venting off company property and time.
Putting It All Together
Hot topics are always around us, and some of these topics connect to things that may require a formal business or legal process. But that doesn’t mean that hot topics should be avoided. Many leaders want to sweep uncomfortable issues under the rug in hopes that they resolve themselves or go away. That is not leadership. Leaders meet challenges head on and deal with whatever issues come their way. Great leaders are aware of issues as they are developing and take action to establish open communication on the topic and mitigate the undercurrents before they become tidal waves.