By Steve Watkins
Companies with management that encourages all employees to voice their opinions and speak honestly tend to perform better than those that don’t. A feeling of ownership and engagement rises among the group when there’s open communication.
In a culture of candor where people feel their voice is heard and they can provide honest feedback, all of the metrics get better,” Matt Kincaid, managing partner of leadership development consulting firm Blue Rudder, told IBD.
In a study of more than 1,000 business decisions, professors Dan Lovallo of the University of Sydney and Olivier Sibony of HEC Paris found that open talk — involving debate and discussion — mattered six times more than analysis in the success of moves such as product launches or business acquisitions.
Here’s how and why to encourage open communication.
Prove It’s Safe
Do more than tell people they’re free to make suggestions. Show it. Be vulnerable by admitting when you’re wrong and asking questions to get their input.
“Be a question person, not an answer person,” said Kincaid, co-author of “Permission to Speak Freely.” “People feel safe when they trust their leader, and vulnerability is one way to win that trust.”
There’s a difference between making people feel heard and actually hearing them, says Maren Showkeir, Phoenix-based co-author of “Authentic Conversations.” Listen to people and then take action. Sure, you can’t put every idea in place. But act on some of them.
“If you listen and nothing changes, then don’t go through the exercise because you’re doing more harm than good,” Showkeir said.
Consider Each Idea
When people offer feedback or ask you questions, treat everything they say as important and significant. The top reason people say they don’t speak up at work is that they don’t think it will help.
“Dignify every try,” Kincaid said. “Validate the person’s efforts. Be genuinely curious and ask authentic questions.”
Honesty is vital, but candor doesn’t have to mean brutal honesty.
“Be honest, listen to others, be open and realize many things can be true at the same time,” Showkeir said. “If you’re willing to tell the truth with goodwill and hear the truth with goodwill, that will foster more goodwill and people will be committed to making this successful.”
Get Everyone On Board
When people know what’s at stake, they’ll offer ideas and won’t care whether each idea gets implemented. Showkeir once worked with a health care system that was in danger of losing its Medicare business because of slow paying of claims. They talked about what could happen and the group offered ideas on how to improve. It became a rallying point and the company thrived.
“Once people understand the stakes and know that they play an important role in the business, they’ll offer input and understand not everybody’s ideas get in,” she said.
The biggest hindrance for leaders in encouraging open communication is that they’re too busy, Kincaid says. It’s faster to tell people what to do and how to do it than it is to listen to their thoughts and ask them questions.
“It can be hard to be intentional and thoughtful about this,” Kincaid said. “But the traditional way of thinking about leadership is wrong.”
Be comfortable as a leader in not knowing all of the answers. Ask questions of your people and tell them you’d like to know more about their area of expertise. Take their suggestions into account, too.
One way: Say yes to almost everything. Kincaid suggests saying yes to an idea unless it’s life or death. Let it play itself out, even if it doesn’t work. People will feel empowered that their ideas get a chance.
“The best way to encourage people is to say yes,” he said.
Reap The Benefits Of Open Communication
Leaders who spend the most time listening to and engaging with their people have the most success, Showkeir says.
“Many minds are better than one mind,” Showkeir said. “You’ve hired these people for a reason. If we’re not allowing people to speak freely, knowledge, creativity and all kinds of skill sets get squashed.”
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