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How to Make Your Company Comfortable with Open and Honest Conversations

December 21, 2016

How to Make Your Company Comfortable with Open and Honest Conversations

Not all ideas are good ideas. This isn’t a ground-breaking observation, I know. But that doesn't make it easy to tell an employee or team that their ideas or execution isn't all that great. And it’s especially important to be able to communicate that sentiment in a way that doesn't sap the team’s enthusiasm or willingness to take risks in the future.

Having a company atmosphere where open and honest conversations are the default, instead of confrontational exchanges or worse, ignoring the issue, is necessary for employee productivity and engagement to thrive.

Setting the expectation that people will communicate directly, openly and honestly with each other is part of creating a collaborative culture at your company. Teams don't work at their optimum level if they can't move through the rough patches in an efficient and fruitful way. The best open and honest conversations turn a difficult situation on its head. These conversations lead to results that exceed what would have been achieved — had the circumstances requiring the conversation not arose.

Carve Out Space to Fail

People will naturally be willing to get more creative and take more risks when they don't fear harsh reprisals if things don't work out. If you want to inspire a spirit of innovation, you have to be willing to absorb some failure. In fact, if your team isn't failing sometimes, they're just not trying hard enough. Failure is where we learn. But only if we're willing to honestly dissect what went wrong.

The key to making this sort of discussion productive is to not personalize the mistakes or failure. It’s important to make sure that failure is discussed as the result of teamwork, not one particular individual’s work.

Don't Wait for the Big Rocks to Fall

You start building the collaborative trust needed for valuable open and honest conversations by noticing and addressing the small things as they come up. I don't mean to say you should nitpick everything. I mean we should tackle issues as they arise. We don't need to call special meetings with lots of participants. It’s important to address issues as soon as they come up, that way small issues don’t grow into big issues over time.

Then, if a really big challenge does to come up, the team is already accustomed to communicating productively with each other. Ideally, team members have also internalized the value of having these direct conversations that they engage in them with each other, without needing top down direction.

Let People Stay in Their Lanes

Don't insist your people excel at everything. That's why we have teams in the first place. As our work has become more complex, we're in an era of "hyper specialization," especially for knowledge workers.

People bring different perspectives and skill sets. You'll establish a better climate for open and honest conversations when people don't feel like they're on the hook for every little thing – especially those things that are outside of their control.

Keep people accountable for their particular expertise, but don't make them responsible for having every detail and nuance at their fingertips. On the contrary, hold people responsible for not turning to their teammates.

Encourage Peer Accountability and Discussions

Encourage your team to have these open and honest conversations through peer accountability. People don't want any more top down pressure than is necessary. Managers don't need to insert themselves into every blip that might occur when teams execute their tasks. Set the example, and let the peer groups in your company hold each other accountable.

Second Nature

Making collaboration second nature for employees is more than sharing projects and tasks. It's the strength and breadth of their relationships that exist outside of specific projects and tasks. The more common it is for productive, de-personalized open and honest conversations to occur, the more comfortable everyone becomes with them. Then their collaboration becomes richer and starts to take a life of its own. Now that's culture.

What tips does you team find helpful for having more direct conversations? Or does your team just brush these issues under the rug? Let me know how these tips work for your team, or if one of these tips was particularly helpful.