When a friend of mine recently retired from the job she held for seven years, she decided to be totally honest in her exit interview.  Freed from the need for an employer’s reference, she felt comfortable being honest, yet respectful, about why she was leaving—despite their offer of more money and flexibility to stay.  Had there been a culture of open communication in her organization, they might have kept a great employee. 

What is open communication?

Open communication promotes transparency, honesty, and accessibility among individuals and within organizations.  In organizations where an open style and approach is practiced, everyone from the CEO to mid-level managers to line staff freely share information, ideas, concerns, and feedback, without fear of judgment or reprisal.  When people can comfortably express ideas, insights, and perceptions, teamwork is improved, employees are engaged, creativity is enhanced, trust grows, and the work culture becomes more inclusive and supportive. 

So, what makes communication open?

Be transparent.

Open communication involves being forthright and honest, keeping people informed about successes  and potential roadblocks. When organizations are transparent, they build trust and shared understanding. A transparent work environment invites critiques, as well as compliments. It responds in a positive way to suggestions—even if the answer is “sorry, not right now.” It offers explanations (barring bonds of confidentiality or other professional limitations). And it provides channels and opportunities for opinions to be aired, suggestions to be pitched, and tentative responses to be discussed. PIXAR CEO Ed Catmull famously implemented a high-profile open-door policy, that insisted that anyone should be able to bring concerns or ideas to the head of the company to drive success. While grand ambitions like this sometimes fail under the weight of pragmatism, a culture of openness with clear paths to communicate is essential.

Listen actively. 

It is vital that leaders and teams listen actively to each other by being fully present and attentive. Active listening demonstrates empathy for others’ situations and seeks to understand other perspectives. It also takes time—so allow time in meetings and other forums for questions, answers, and—importantly—new ideas and perspectives. A frequent collaborator of mine recalls a former boss who routinely asked what employees thought, before suddenly recalling a deadline that meant tabling discussion until later. “Later” rarely came. A better course is to make a plan to listen, then stick to the plan.

Dialogue with respect and without fear. 

Open communication encourages respectful and constructive dialogue so people feel comfortable sharing opinions and thoughts, and disagreements, without fear of reprisal or other negative repercussions.  It encourages an environment where diverse opinions are valued and differences are openly discussed. Remember NASA’s Challenger space disaster? Before the accident that killed seven crew members, engineers had noted the potential for equipment failure, but their concerns were underreported, or worse, unheeded. 

Give feedback that promotes constructive action.

A hallmark of open communication is providing and receiving feedback that invites collaboration, learning and is non-threatening.  When people feel judged or attacked, they will shut down. Feedback that is specific, timely and focused on improvement will promote positive action. Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl was known for taking questions from small investors and advocates who accepted or arranged an invitation to annual shareholder meetings. While McColl might genuinely not have had the time to follow their concerns personally, he would openly instruct another executive to follow up on concerns that were aired during the meeting—and insist on a plan to resolve them. 

Make information accessible and available to all relevant parties.

One of the biggest challenges in organizations is the hoarding of information. When people are kept in the dark, they disengage and feel disrespected. Worse, they may fill the void with misinformation or even disinformation. Make sure information-sharing platforms are open and accessible. Regular channels can take many forms—routine all-staff meetings, newsletters, email, videos, and the use of platforms like Slack. As a case in point, Prudential Financial CEO Charles Lowrey told a Dealbook Summit he used to do his job without ever talking about his private life—until the pandemic. Then, in weekly recordings on his iPhone, he opened up about feelings. Leadership during a crisis, he says, demands openly communicating strength, empathy and even vulnerability.

Open communication builds trust, fosters collaboration, and prevents misunderstandings that can cause strife and poor morale. However, like anything open communication requires practice. At the Wainger Group we offer business leadership communication consulting. We can work with you on opening lines of communication that will help empower your employees and organizational growth.