Employee engagement experts consistently trumpet the value of “open and honest” workplace communication. Our standard employee engagement survey measures employee perception on this item, “When the organization makes changes, I understand why.”
US-based employers typically receive mixed reviews from employees on this item. In fact, on our Employee Engagement Trends Report, it ranked at the most uncertain among our survey items. Only 26 percent of respondents indicated their organization provides transparency when making changes.
The primary goal of open workplace communication is to build a culture where the collective intelligence of all employees is captured and valued. A secondary goal is to instill a culture of accountability whereby employees—regardless of position level—can share feedback that constructively improves the performance of a team.
Here are a few truths and recommendations every individual can apply to understand and improve their team’s culture of communication:
Your right to deliver open and honest communication is not a license to say whatever you want, whenever you want. Open communication is to the workplace what free speech is to the democracy. Yes, your observations and insights are wanted and needed. But don’t abuse those rights with shallow accusations and frivolous complaints. Even in the freest of nations, free speech is bridled by laws around libel, slander, obscenity, and hate speech. Workplace communication has parallels with each of these violations.
Your open communication can and should be met with an equal degree of open communication from the person you’re giving feedback to. This improves the integrity and equal exchange of feedback. You certainly have a right to tell a colleague, “You suck at time management.” But that colleague has an equal right to openly and honestly fire back with, “Maybe my time management looks bad only because you have no idea what thinking ‘strategically’ looks like.” Obviously deflecting critical feedback with more critical feedback is not the preferred response. The point is that feedback typically generates an intellectual and emotional response. The more objective your feedback, the more objective the response. Reckless feedback is likely to be coupled with reckless responses.
By definition, open communication requires at least two individuals. When communication breaks down, it’s typically the result of failures on both sides. Avoid pointing fingers towards any single individual. And recognize that change will require effort on the part of all team members.
With that philosophical backdrop, let’s look at tactical considerations for delivering honest feedback.
Avoid using absolute language. Words like "never," "always," and "terrible" often show up in open-ended survey comments provided by anonymous survey takers. The problem with absolute terms is they evoke defensiveness (according to neuroscientist Evian Gordon). And they risk being disregarded for lacking credibility. If you want your feedback to actually drive change, be very specific in your insight and limit your qualifiers to words like “sometimes,” “seems,” and “suggests.”
Try to frame your observation in the form of a question. I call this “The Jeopardy Rule.” Instead of complaining to your manager by saying, “My co-workers are lazy,” try, “Sometimes I sense that I’m pouring more effort into this team’s success than others. How concerned should I be about this?”
Check your motives before delivering harsh criticism. Ask yourself a few questions: “Is my insight factual or merely an opinion extrapolated from an isolated instance?” “Is my goal to build up or tear down?” “Is my goal to shame or blame someone?” Honesty with yourself precedes the honest communication you expect from others. When you have a concern that you want to share, start with the mindset that your concern is merely an observation—and it might be right or wrong or something in between.
Leadership is about increasing the confidence of others on your team. The manner in which you provide feedback is a key variable in your ability to instill confidence. People who develop this skill will advance further and faster than those that don’t. Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtue."
Ultimately, open and honest communication is achieved in high-trust environments. And the most important driver of trust is humility. Employees, managers, and senior leaders all have to resist the same temptation of pride. The more humility we display, the more effective we are at delivering feedback; the more effective we are at delivering feedback, the more likely our feedback is to be thoughtfully received.
If you’re uncertain or unfavorable about the level of open and honest communication at your workplace, you go first. Be your own case study. Go to your manager with a thoughtful concern. If your insight is humble, objective, and persuasive, the organization will notice and take action. “But my workplace is NOT a safe environment for me to share concerns...” is a bad excuse.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."