Creating an Open Climate for Communication

By Daisy Saunders

Manny is the owner and general manager of a small family-owned car dealership. There are ten employees, including one assistant manager who also serves as the service manager. On numerous occasions Manny has boasted that they operate like a close-knit family. He is proud of the way everyone pulls together to serve the customer. However, for the past two years, sales have been decreasing and Manny is determined to change this trend. At the weekly team meeting, he makes a concerted effort to get ideas on how to further serve and expand the company’s customer base. To his surprise, no one offers any suggestions.

Frustrated and at a loss as to why he is unable to get ideas from his team, he hires a consultant to facilitate a creativity/brainstorming session. All members of the staff were open to having such a session. At the beginning of the meeting, Manny informed the facilitator that he had to leave for a thirty-minute conference call but would return as soon as the call was over.

When Manny left the room, the facilitator again solicited feedback on how the staff felt about the session. He got an earful. The overall consensus was that although Manny boasted about an “open door policy” and an interest in their ideas, over the years most of their suggestions had been ignored. So, they simply stopped giving them. Some people even felt that Manny had an “I’m the boss” or “do it my way” attitude. Therefore, they were reluctant to approach him with their concerns or suggestions. Does this scenario sound familiar?

While Manny had a team that pulled together when necessary, he had inadvertently and unknowingly failed to create a work environment that fostered an open communication climate. In such a climate employees feel free to express opinions, voice complaints, and offer suggestions. This freedom is expression is fundamental to creativity and innovation. Research has consistently shown that this open communication climate has these seven distinct characteristics:

1) Employees are valued: Employees are a reservoir of information. They want to be heard and to feel that they are making significant contributions in their workplaces. The manner in which you hear them will shape, to a large degree, whether or not they feel valued. Nothing is more demoralizing than asking employees for suggestions, then ignoring them, without clearly explaining why. When you ignore their ideas, you are sending the message that their opinions don’t count. When employees don’t think their opinion counts they feel detached and insignificant. Ultimately this impacts the employees’ attitude which, in turn, impacts customer service. On the other hand, when you recognize an employee’s suggestion – whether you implement the suggestion or not – it builds confidence in the company and reinforces to employees that their efforts can make the organization better. In essence, employees are happier and more motivated when they feel that they are appreciated and treated with respect.

2) There is a high level of trust: Trust forms the foundation for open communication, employee retention, and employee motivation. Trust is empowering. Individuals who trust the people they work with are self-assured, open and honest, willing to take risks, less resistant to change, and inclined to act in a trustworthy manner. In contrast, individuals who distrust the people they work with tend to be less productive because they feel unsupported and alone. Trust in an organization promotes cooperation, commitment, and a free flow of ideas. It can help an organization survive and achieve a competitive advantage. A key factor in maintaining a high level of trust is to always tell the truth.

3) Conflict is invited and resolved positively: Conflict itself isn’t good or bad – it’s just inevitable. Make it work for you by using it to invite normal give and take dialogue with employees. When dealing with conflict, be open-minded and listen. Take into account the employees’ feelings about the situation and find areas within their position in which you can both agree. If at all possible, strive for a win/win.  If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have innovation and creativity.  

4) Creative dissent is welcomed: Surveys have consistently showed that most employees are afraid to question or disagree with their superiors. However, in an organization where the leaders are committed to fostering an open communication climate, dissent is not only welcomed but rewarded. Employees are encouraged to think, question, and form independent judgments and take responsibility for changing the way business is done. One way to encourage employees to think is initiating an employee suggestion program. This allows the employees to come up with ideas on how to improve the company and they are in turn rewarded for that. Being able to express unique ideas allows the employee to feel as if they contributed to the company in a positive way.

5) Employee input is solicited: In any serious world-class quality effort, a key requirement is that all employees, (regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, language, sexual orientation, age, etc.) at all levels, be involved to their fullest abilities. Employee input is a key to an organization’s success.   Do not limit open communication to only staff meetings. Create a questionnaire or grievance form in which employees can express concerns in a guaranteed confidential manner and then discuss it openly during a meeting.  This method will help to provide information regarding your company that you may or may not be aware of and it will also establish a sense of involvement, improves working relations, and security for the employee.

6) Employees are well-informed through formal channels: While the grapevine can be a credible source for communication, to avoid misunderstanding and miscommunication, it is best to use formal vehicles (meetings, memos, e-mail, etc.) to keep employees informed on what is happening within the organization. If these tools are not put into effect, then you are putting your company at risk due to the lack of knowledge, interaction, support and formal communication.

7) Feedback is on-going: Feedback (positive and negative) is the tool for improved performance. Annual performance appraisals aren’t enough. People need to know regularly how they are doing. When giving feedback, be specific, descriptive, and focus on the person’s behavior and not the person. An example of specific and descriptive behavior is, “Chris, you did an exceptional job selling the Sentra to that couple. Your attentiveness to their needs and your knowledge of the car were excellent.” This is said as opposed to saying, “Good job selling the car, Chris.” The latter is neither specific nor descriptive and makes it sound as though you’re not engaged with Chris’s efforts to improve. Feedback must be on-going and given in effort to resolve problems without placing guilt, and building relationships instead of “being right”.  

Finally, creating a communication climate where employees feel free to speak their minds can be a daunting task. But it is well worth the effort. The end results are better teamwork, enhanced work relationships, increased job satisfaction, innovation, and creativity. It can also make a world of difference in your workplace and insure a trust-worthy exchange between employees.

Read other articles and learn more about Daisy Saunders.

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