7 Ways to Encourage Open Communication

An executive we work with recently mentioned that employees had not expressed concerns or recommended any organizational changes to the leadership team. This was taken as good news until I asked if the leadership team members had solicited feedback, and if they were open to input from employees.


This question caused the executive to pause. Actually, I had it on good report from many employees in the organization that they were not invited to give input and actually feared approaching their managers. The executive and I then discussed ways to open up communication to ensure the leadership team was well-informed about challenges and opportunities facing the organization.


Most organizations have room for improvement in the area of open communication. Our Employee Opinion Survey Overall Benchmark Data 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. Similarly, when asked if employees feel free to communicate their opinion when they disagree with their boss, the overall benchmark was 76.6% favorable.


Employees often tell us that it’s difficult to open up and speak freely when communicating with their managers. When we ask why they feel this way, the most common responses include:


  • My manager never asks for my thoughts and opinions
  • My manager doesn’t listen, respond, or take action based on my input
  • My manager never stops what he’s doing to look at me and acknowledge what I am saying
  • My manager discounts my ideas and is often condescending
  • My manager often gets mad and I fear retaliation


It’s time for leaders everywhere to open up communication with their team members.  Here are 7 ways to foster an open exchange of information and ideas, thus ensuring you are a leader who is gaining insight, listening, and responding to invaluable input from employees.


Ask vs. Tell

When team members come to you with concerns or recommendations, ask questions to gain a thorough understanding of the situation. For example, “What have you observed among our customers to bring you to this conclusion?” or “How do you think a change in policy will impact the organization’s culture?”

The more insight you gain, the better your response and final decision. Refrain from becoming defensive or telling the employee why you disagree with their ideas or suggestions.


 Describe vs. Judge

When discussing a team member’s behavior or a decision they made, describe what you observed.  Avoid judging their behavior or the reasoning behind their decision. For example, “I noticed in the last three weeks your sales reports have been three or four days late,” instead of, “You’ve become lazy and don’t seem to care about your work.”


 “What” and “How” vs. “Why”

Ask team members to explain their position or situation by starting your questions with “what” they have observed to bring out their idea or concern, or “how” they have arrived at their position on the subject.  When you begin questions with “why” people are put on the defensive and often respond with self-protective or aggressive answers. Ask, “What has taken place to give you cause for concern?” instead of, “Why are you so concerned about this situation?”


Acknowledge vs. Avoid

When there’s a problem that needs to be fixed or an employee’s work needs improvement, have the courage to acknowledge the situation in the early stages before it gets out of hand.  When leaders avoid problems or shrink back from addressing performance issues, the situations always get worse.  And to double your problems, everyone else on the team knows you are not holding people accountable, which in turn undermines the team’s trust and confidence in you.


Attend vs. Ignore

When team members come to you with problems or suggestions, give them your undivided attention; stop what you are doing, look them in the eye, listen, and ask questions as outlined in the previous examples. Don’t leave employees with the impression that they are not important by not acknowledging them, continuing to type, or rummaging through your files.


Reflect vs. Preach

Demonstrate that you not only hear what the team member is saying, but that you understand the feelings behind their words. State that you perceive a specific emotion in their tone or body language. Don’t discount how a person feels or suggest they should not feel the way they do. For example, reflect by saying “I hear the concern in your voice,” instead of “There’s no need to be concerned.”


Clarify/Verify/Summarize vs. Conclude

Engage in the conversation with team members by using active listening skills to clarify, verify, and summarize what you have heard. To clarify, ask for more information.  To verify, state what you understand and ask the team member to confirm if your understanding is right or wrong. Summarize your discussion and any decisions or action steps to ensure alignment of all parties in the conversation. Avoid bringing the conversation to an abrupt close by stating your conclusion, opinion, or decision without first gaining agreement and confirming understanding with all team members.


The first step in opening up communication is to acknowledge that your team members have great insights and understanding about what is taking place within your industry and your organization. Employees on the front line are often the first to see the future needs and demands of your customers. Opening up communication takes commitment and intentional effort.  When you take the time and energy to solicit input from team members and listen to gain a thorough understanding of the situation, you increase your odds of staying nimble and innovative. Your future success depends on it!

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