After spending three decades in corporate America, I’ve found that the quickest way to gauge a company’s culture is to ask its leader to step into a room with their employees. What happens in the moments surrounding their entrance can tell you volumes. Observe — are the gathered workers waiting in silence or having spirited conversations? Does the discussion stop abruptly when the leader enters or fade more naturally?
Popular stereotypes tell us that a good corporate leader should be someone who commands a room. He or she should be accomplished, authoritative, and intimidating; we intuit that while their presence is respected, even feared, it would not be readily welcomed into rank-and-file conversations.
And yet, research indicates that executive relatability and conversational freedom is crucial to business success. As management researchers Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind once wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations.”
The benefits of taking a more employee-inclusive and welcoming approach to communication are extensive. Past literature demonstrates that organizations that encourage employees to share their ideas tend to see higher levels of operational flexibility, employee engagement, strategic alignment, retention, and performance than those that take a more dictatorial, top-down approach to communication. In 2016, researchers who reviewed this trend noted that one national restaurant chain managed to reduce employee turnover by nearly a third (32 percent) and saved over $1.6 million by encouraging more open communication across ranks.
But achieving these business gains isn’t as simple as sending out a memo on the virtues of open communication. Studies have shown that employees vary in their personal initiatives (PI). Those with high PI scores tend to have more proactive mindsets and speak up frequently, while those with low scores are usually more reticent with their thoughts.
Environmental circumstances can also have an impact on an employee’s willingness to speak. Even employees with high personal initiative will withhold information if they think sharing it will be interpreted negatively by their supervisors.
As New York University researchers explained in a 2003 paper, “Many respondents expressed concerns about damaging relationships and losing relational currency. Others expressed fear of retaliation or punishment, such as losing their job or not getting a promotion. Respondents also expressed concerns about negatively impacting others.”
“Based on our data,” they conclude, “We would argue that even though problems may be significant, employees may still be reluctant to speak up if they feel that there is no hope of remedial action and discussion would be futile.”
Employee silence presents its own set of consequences. Over time, such communication failures can undermine organizational decision-making, stymie error-correction efforts, and damage morale.
This isn’t to say that such breakdowns are inevitable — they aren’t. If corporate leaders can embrace a receptive and transformational leadership approach that values employee input, they can cultivate open communication even among low-PI workers. As researchers for a 2019 study explained, “When working with transformational managers, low-initiative employees often feel as responsible for change as high-initiative employees, and consequently, speak up more frequently.”
The writers note, however, that transformational leadership will only have an effect if employees perceive their work environment to be psychologically safe. They must perceive their supervisors as being open to input and know they can share their perspectives and ideas without fear of penalty or dismissal.
The solution to building communicative cultures is thus twofold: corporate leaders must cultivate a welcoming environment and explicitly encourage employee feedback. Such efforts require time, effort, and outreach initiatives tailored to the given business. That said, there are a few general steps that leaders can take to prompt positive change.
Assess Your Leadership Style and Team
The next time you host an all-hands meeting or team gathering, conduct the entrance-test described at the opening of this article. How do your employees respond to your presence or that of other leaders? Are your employees willing to engage and ask questions or merely waiting to leave?
Getting a starting gauge on your company’s cultural health will help you strategize a path forward.
Make Interactions Casual and Common
If corporate leaders only engage with lower-level staffers when rolling out new policies or giving formal feedback, employees will naturally view all interactions with hesitance and trepidation.
Make a point to engage with your team even when you don’t have a specific problem, and encourage your managers to do the same. Have conversations and ask for informal feedback regularly. The more you prove your receptivity to new ideas and responses, the less hesitant employees will be to provide them.
To borrow one more quote from Groysberg and Slind, “Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.”
Fix Your Accessibility Cues
You may be encouraging your employees to speak openly — but is your environment doing the same?
Unspoken cues matter in corporate communication. Let’s say, for illustration, that an employee is determined to share an idea — but to do so, they need to walk up two flights of stairs, past a secretary, and talk to you across an imposing oak desk. You might not think anything of the commute, but some employees may feel so intimidated by the prospect of making it that they remain quietly at their desks.
The best way to mitigate these factors is to limit the number of psychological hurdles employees need to navigate and make a point to occasionally leave your office to visit “safe” common spaces.
If You Ask for Ideas, Review Them
The worst move any leadership team can make is to ask for input and then ignore it. Employees want to know that their ideas are being used to enact positive change. One study published in 2016 found that teams whose bosses frequently acted on their behalf tended to share their thoughts and concerns 10 percent more than those whose supervisors did not demonstrate advocacy.
If you ask for feedback, make sure that you need it. Once you have it, tell your team how you plan to use it. Being open and transparent about your aims will help you cultivate trust in your workforce. After some time and effort, you may find that instead of falling silent when you enter a room, your employees continue to talk — and welcome your presence.