Transparent Communication Alone Won’t Cut It — Part 2

Callie RushtonEmployee Engagement, LeadershipLeave a Comment

This is the second of two blogs that explores the topic of transparent communication in the workplace. Previously, we illustrated the context of today’s world: trust in leaders is low, and demand for more information is higher than ever. We explained why your current communication strategy may not be doing much to rebuild trust, and suggested an initial, topic-driven survey to determine how employees are perceiving your efforts at transparency. Here, we offer three more strategies for facilitating trust through your communications from leadership.

Let’s begin with a brief re-cap our current predicament.

  • Society’s trust in institutions and leaders is low, including in the workplace.
  • Transparent and inspiring communication from senior leaders can help restore confidence in leadership, which is a major driver of employee engagement across industries.
  • Most efforts at transparent communication are missing a key element: listening.

If you took our advice in the last blog, you’ve laid the groundwork for improving your communication strategy by getting some specific survey feedback from employees about how your efforts are coming across. Armed with this information, you can begin to take meaningful steps toward improving your transparent communication and rebuilding organizational trust.

To ensure your efforts at transparency actually change employee perceptions, consider these approaches to infuse more listening into your strategy:

1) Demonstrate an authentic desire to learn

Through your actions, you must demonstrate an authentic desire to learn from employees if you really want to change people’s opinions of you as a leader. To do this, you have to both listen and respond to their ideas. Leaders will sometimes ask for input without caring enough to listen closely, and things quickly backfire. Your lack of listening becomes readily apparent, and your employees will be less likely to take the time to share feedback when you ask for it in the future. Conversely, if you listen well but don’t ever implement new suggestions or change your behavior in light of criticism, people will quickly lose trust and disengage. Only when both listening and follow-through are part of the equation can you actionably demonstrate that you want to learn.

In addition to fostering a culture of trust, there are practical benefits to this approach. The reason you likely hired employees from different backgrounds and demographics is that you recognize the value diversity of thought brings to your organization. Tap into this resource! When you are open to ideas from people who may have a totally different way of looking at a problem than you do, you’ll probably get more creative solutions than you could have ever dreamt up alone. And don’t worry that you’ll look like less of an expert if you ask for help—your employees will reward your humility with greater trust and commitment to helping the organization stay on track.

2) Create opportunities for two-way communication

Another common misstep in transparent communication happens when leaders share information from the top, but do not provide adequate opportunities for their employees to respond to what was shared. As we’ve mentioned, we often see leaders become confused and frustrated when they believe they’ve been making a concerted effort to be more transparent, but their employee feedback doesn’t seem to register that effort. In these cases, it’s likely that leaders haven’t taken the time to facilitate meaningful dialogue that has the potential to improve mutual understanding. 

Many leaders hesitate to increase two-way communication because they are afraid of negative feedback or because they simply don’t feel they have time to hold these types of conversations. But those who do embrace this model often find that they actually receive less criticism over time as their employees feel more heard, and that time is saved in other areas once synergy and trust are re-established.

3) Communicate the “why”

I know we said that the missing element was often listening, so you may wonder why we are back to the subject of talking. The reason is that much “transparent” communication from leadership focuses on the “what”: the earnings from last quarter, the newest staff additions, the decisions that have already been reached. This might be good information to get, but it doesn’t help anyone understand the “why.” Why do senior leaders believe earnings fell, and what are we as a team going to do about it? Why did we hire more people when we just laid off a bunch from a different department? Why are these changes even happening?!

The truth is, even the most well-reasoned choices can look like they came out of left field if employees don’t know what went into making that decision. Sharing how and why decisions were made allows employees to understand you better and facilitates mutual trust. Saying things like, “We know a lot of you wanted to see some changes to the office layout, but we decided that for the moment, it makes more sense to work on changing our PTO policies for these reasons,” communicates to employees that you did hear them and that you care what they think. When they understand what went into the decision, they’ll be more likely to be okay with it and trust that you are being thoughtful and deliberate in your actions.

In sum, transparent leadership can help reduce disengagement and turnover in your organization by helping employees get to know you, understand the decisions you make, and feel more connected to the team goal. This approach directly benefits your organization’s bottom line by reducing operating costs and increasing your chances of hiring and retaining top talent. However, in today’s distrusting world, it’s vital that leaders move beyond the communication model that emphasizes telling over listening, and toward one that holds both pieces equal to unlock even greater engagement.