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Open Communication: Vital to Business Success

By: David Hassell
Last updated 3/25/2013

Open communication is a concept that almost all companies claim to value, but very few truly achieve. The importance of an open business environment cannot be overstated; a company can survive without open communication, but very few organizations thrive without it. This article takes a look at how open communication can truly be developed in an organization, the pitfalls involved when that attempt fails, and some key basics to keep in mind as a manager determined to keep the lines of communication open and healthy.

Trust is key.
What is needed to nurture an environment of open communication? All high-performing teams, whether in the sports arena or in the business world, are built on a solid foundation of trust. Trust grows over time and is based on individual members of a team making and keeping commitments, as well as being vulnerable with one another. These honored commitments are noticed by other team members, making them feel less vulnerable, which in turn opens the door to stronger relationships. Relationships are then built upon through continued open, honest communication.

Engagement enhances performance.
Nurturing any staff members to a higher level of performance involves leading them to this place of strong relationships and trust. Another key element in creating this type of environment, and a natural result of trust, is employee engagement. High engagement means that  employees care deeply about their work, feel like they’re part of the team, are bought into the greater vision, and bring their unique strengths to their work. None of this is possible unless those employees feel like the company they work for cares about them, values their work, has their best interests in mind, and accepts them as part of an integral team. If an employee believes these things to be true, they will bring their best work to the company every day.

Again, communication is key to reaching this level of engagement. A culture of open communication where employees are encouraged to share their ideas and concerns, both positive and negative, gives employees the sense that they are valued. This feeling of value in turn leads to a greater sense, for the employee, of ownership in the company’s success. It can mean the vital difference between an employee who shows up and offers a minimum of effort to receive his paycheck and an employee who comes to the office ready to give his all for the success of the team and the business as a whole. In short, a sense of progress, felt both personally and overall, leads to happy employees. And happy employees tend to be the most productive employees.

Communicate a common goal.
While an open, trusting, and highly engaged employee will perform at a high level and boost productivity, not just for himself but for all around him, these hard-working employees do no good if there is no common goal to unite them. When employees operate at cross purposes, communication is critical in setting things straight. Management must be clear in openly stating the objectives of the company, both overall and at the departmental level. Establishing and communicating clear objectives is the way company management creates alignment among disparate disciplines within an organization. The more open a leadership team is in sharing their vision for the company—which should include their goals, strategies, and values—the more likely each employee will understand their role in the greater mission and engage to make success happen as part of the team.

Snowball effect of bad communication.
In the absence of open communication, a snowball effect of negative actions can envelop the energy of an organization. If communication is tentative and secretive, trust—what there is of it—tends to erode. When trust erodes, employees tend to disengage and hold back their thoughts for fear of retribution. They may also begin to feel that management no longer has their best interests in mind, and they may be wary of offering anything over and above the minimal contribution. At the same time, management begins to note the less-than-stellar efforts on the part of employees. Managers then begin to no longer believe that employees have the best interests of the business in mind, and doubt they are performing to the best of their abilities.

Worst of all, poor communication and the resulting erosion of trust leads to a reluctance to share ideas. Good ideas that stem from the individuals who know an organization most intimately—the employees—are the lifeblood of any business. To lose the steady flow of insights and innovations unique to your business is a sure path to static, or worse, arrested growth.

Keys to keep in mind.
As a manager, what are some basic things to keep in mind while continuously trying to foster open communication in an organization and keep the pitfalls of bad communication at bay?

1. Make open communication part of the company culture. If it is clear to employees from the beginning of their time with the company that open communication is welcomed, mutual, and expected, they will proceed to operate on that basis and seek it out in others. You must go first and lead by example. Your employees’ willingness to be open and vulnerable will be a direct reflection of your own willingness.
2. Respect, honor, and reward open communication. Meet the enthusiastic sharing of ideas, insights, and concerns with positive reinforcement, never reproach, no matter how critical.
3. Develop an efficient and effective method for collaboration and the sharing of ideas. It could be a software tool, a coordinated series of meetings, or a regular protocol for electronic communication. Whatever it is, stick to it, and let it be known that participation is welcome and expected.
4. Remember vulnerability has its rewards. Great communication requires vulnerability on both sides, which is scary for most people. Put aside the fear and remember—and remind—that the rewards far outweigh the perceived potential danger.
5. As a manager, practice what you preach. Employees can’t be expected to behave in a way that management itself doesn’t adhere to. So, trust your employees as you expect them to trust you. them as you expect them to trust you. Honor your commitments.

Keep goals, values, and concerns out in the open, even if the news is not always good. Stay engaged and give it your all for the success of the team.

About the Author(s)

David Hassell is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of 15Five, a software company focused on producing transparency and alignment in organizations through structured, efficient, and effective communication practices. He recently served as president of the San Francisco chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization (E), http://www.eonetwork.org), an international network of entrepreneurs who each have businesses with annual revenues in excess of $1 million, and has been named The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley by Forbes.