Five Ways to Start Building a Culture of Open Communication

By Mark Hayes, Accredited Coach & Certified Trainer

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” observed Peter Drucker many moons ago. Fast forward several decades and organisational culture is still considered by many as an afterthought. At best, it is something ‘touchy-feely’ delegated to the guys and gals over at HR. At worst, it is likely to be disregarded as something intangible, unquantifiable, unmeasurable and unimportant. Hard to know where to put it on the balance sheet, isn’t it?

That first class product you have? Your competitors will try to imitate it.

That service offering on your website? Some team somewhere will try to copy it (if they haven’t already).

But replicating your culture? That’s a fiendishly difficult task because it is by far the hardest thing to replicate. The success of your particular recipe is the extent to which your people believe themselves to be trusted, empowered and informed.

Superficially, all businesses are just entities and structures of people. Yet, what makes yours stand apart from others is that eclectic and hard-to-pin-down arrangement of your collective values, guiding beliefs and behaviours. In its purest essence, it is the intangible, priceless magic which binds your people willingly to your cause. It’s the trust between everyone who wears the company hat. It all starts with the prioritisation of a culture of open communication in your workplace.

Here are five ways to get the ball rolling. 

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Walk the Talk

Yes. It all begins with your behaviour as a leader. To change culture, we have to ensure that our words and actions are aligned with the words and deeds we expect from others. Arguably, it is the hardest step. To paraphrase the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant, we need to ask ourselves every day: What would the world be…if everyone in it was just like me. Your organisational culture is the ‘mirror’ from which your beliefs stare back at you. So, your first step should be to look in that mirror. Do you like what you see?

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Prioritise Transparency from the Top

The quality of the culture you wish to create is dependent on the quality of communication from the top-down. When people feel those ‘at the top’ are being open and honest, direct and unambiguous, it has a knock-on effect. Strive to make people feel their concerns are noted and answered. Make sure company town halls, huddles and meetings are a dialogue rather than a ‘we-know-best’ monologue. Invite questions from the floor then hold nothing back. Honesty and transparency starts with you.

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Build Democracy of Information 

“I have no idea what’s going on” is a frequent lamentation from disgruntled employees. It’s no surprise. Information abhors a vacuum. In the absence of the ‘right’ information, toxic rumours and mistrust rush in to fill that vacuum. On the other hand, entrusting people with the full-picture gives them the information they need to stay on-board with your vision. So treat your people like adults. Abolish the “it’s above your pay-grade” nonsense. Ensure everyone can access the real data. Engender their trust. Then watch you’re ‘A-Players’ stay.

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Design an Open Environment 

“How come I can never get hold of him?” “How come she got that office?”

Pay-grade perks are a daily bone of contention in offices around the world, so why should yours be any different? Here’s why. Pecking-orders are for chickens. Corner offices, leather chairs and ego-cabinets belong to the era of dinosaurs like Gordon Gekko. So park your desk in the middle of your people. Be visible. Be accessible. Work side by side. Same desk. Same space, Same everything. Equality breeds quality.

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Ask for Feedback

Many business leaders are good at soliciting feedback from customers. But do they solicit (and value) feedback from the people who answer the company phones? “How are we doing” is a question we should be asking the people on the inside, not just the outside. So ask for feedback and show gratitude for it. Champion people willing to stick their necks out and tell-it-like-it-is. They will more readily tell you what’s going on (good and bad) eliminating ‘blind-spots’ and helping you to tackle problems before they fester.

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As Michael Watkins noted, your organisational culture is your organisation’s immune system. It is an irreplaceable asset. We must create processes to enshrine a culture of open communication. We must embody it. We must build our organisation around it. To wit, it is arguably the most valuable and sustainable advantage you will ever have over your competition.

About the author

Mark is an accomplished learning & development professional with 15+ years of experience conducting needs analysis as well as designing and delivering corporate programmes customised to international audiences.

Over the course of nearly 20 years, training contracts have taken him across the USA, Europe, the Middle-East and to far-flung (and amazing places) such as Samoa, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and across a range of industries including telecoms, banking, fin-tech, hospitality, government & security

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