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Three Challenges of Transparent Communication

August 1, 2011

It’s easy to say that open communication is important for innovative organizations in today’s uncertain world. Easing communication between and within departments can no doubt help, as emphasized in a previous post. However, the rapid pace of market changes make it difficult to steer entire organizations in the right direction quickly and flexibly. And some of you may be unsure about how to realistically implement this transparent flow of information, plus there may be good reasons given your experience. Perhaps you can relate to some of the following common obstacles:

Challenge #1 You may have found that not everyone feels they know how to be so upfront with others. Your organizational culture, or even just a general lack of communication between departments, may not be ready for such a shift in communication style.

Challenge #2 Involving staff may seem pointless. Staff may not feel they want to hear about the reasons for new policies or just want to get on with their fixed routines. Maybe their information load is already too much to bear, so that any new information just adds to their workload or doesn’t even register. These people may also lack the interest to use new information creatively.

Challenge #3 Misuse of information. Staff may make the wrong judgments based on what they hear. If everyone has the impression they are let in on everything that’s going on in the company, they may feel equally privileged to take initiatives that can eventually disrupt work.

Fostering transparency is easier said than done, but this does not take away the importance of at least trying. In each of the challenges above, identifying the state of your current communication patterns should be the first step. Every organization is unique in its work culture and systems, so what you need to do depends on the particular problems you experience.

Start by identifying people’s communication needs systematically e.g. via a quick 1-on-1 chat (for about 5-10 minutes). You could, for example, ask them how they feel about their workload and if they have any questions or comments about their job roles. Carrying out this initial investigation might be daunting for first-timers, but doing it collectively with other managers or colleagues will make it easier for you to follow through. Be as open and authentic as possible.  Planning your questions in advance is also an advantage as it will guide you and allows for easy comparison between views of different people. If the state of your current organizational culture is such that employees are not usually listened to, they may be baffled at first by this gesture. This is, however, the beginning of a communication shift that will gradually develop into more free-flowing interactive relationships – but you must invest in regular follow-up chats. Simply leaving your door open is not enough to make people voice their thoughts.

If your problem is mostly like challenge #1 you may want to consult a communication expert who can guide you in the right direction. Training managers in how to interact with employees more openly is also an option, but take steps to ensure that trainees follow through with their acquired knowledge afterwards.

If your experience is more like challenge #2 then use the information you gather from the chats – look for patterns, surprises, issues raised, as well as individual differences in levels of job enthusiasm. Employees who display high levels of enthusiasm and interest in their jobs are the ones who can potentially best help you champion your innovation efforts. And some people function best not knowing more than the bare minimum required for their jobs.

Challenge #3 can be addressed in informal forums where groups of colleagues can discuss their thoughts, questions and ideas together. The managers who participate in these forums should act more like a guide than an evaluator because people need to feel supported rather than observed in order to feel they can speak up openly. These forums can help you spot potential problems or prevailing attitudes that have not been communicated directly to you.

Overall, implementing transparency in your organizational day-to-day activities can strengthen relations with colleagues, which can ultimately help address your company’s challenges during an innovation effort. One of the most effective ways to communicate with people is to adopt a situational leadership style. This is something we will talk about in a future post, but for now – what are your thoughts on attempts to create more open communication with others? Do you think it is necessary in all cases?

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