The open and honest truth about workplace communication

By: Steve Marshall Monday April 6, 2015 0 comments


(Note: We all would like to say what is really on our minds at work. Is that honest communication? Yes, but potentially fatal to your continued employment. Here is another look at that subject by Greg Harris from Quantum Workplace. Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at

Employee engagement experts consistently trumpet the value of “open and honest” workplace communication. Our standard employee engagement surveymeasures employee perception on this ite, “There is open and honest communication between employees and managers.”

US-based employers typicallyreceive mixed reviews from employees on this item. In fact, on a recent 2014 Employee Engagement Trends Report, it ranked fourth most uncertain among our 40 survey items. Just over 20 percent of all survey takers rated the item in a neutral manner (choosing Somewhat Disagree or Somewhat Agree on a 6-point Likert scale). It’s right behind items concerning lightning-rod subjects like employee benefits and fair pay.

The primary goal of open workplace communication is to build a culture where the collective intelligence of all employees is captured and valued. A secondary goal is to instill a culture of accountability whereby employees—regardless of position level—can share feedback that constructively improves the performance of a team.

Here are a few truths and recommendations every individual can apply to understand and improve their team’s culture of communication:

Truth #1

Your right to deliver open and honest communication is not a license to say whatever you want, whenever you want. Open communication is to the workplace what free speech is to the democracy. Yes, your observations and insights are wanted and needed. But don’t abuse those rights with shallow accusations and frivolous complaints. Even in the freest of nations, free speech is bridled by laws around libel, slander, obscenity, and hate speech. Workplace communication has parallels with each of these violations.

Truth #2

Your open communication can and should be met with an equal degree of open communication from the person you’re giving feedback to. This improves the integrity and equal exchange of feedback. You certainly have a right to tell a colleague, “You suck at time management.” But that colleague has an equal right to openly and honestly fire back with, “Maybe my time management looks bad only because you have no idea what thinking ‘strategically’ looks like.” Obviously deflecting critical feedback with more critical feedback is not the preferred response. The point is that feedback typically generates an intellectual and emotional response. The more objective your feedback, the more objective the response. Reckless feedback is likely to be coupled with reckless responses.

Truth #3

By definition, open communication requires at least two individuals. When communication breaks down, it’s typically the result of failures on both sides. Avoid pointing fingers towards any single individual. And recognize that change will require effort on the part of all team members.

With that philosophical backdrop, let’s look at tactical considerations for delivering honest feedback.

Recommendation #1

Avoid using absolute language. Words like “never,” “always,” and “terrible”often show up in open-ended survey comments provided by anonymous survey takers. The problem with absolute terms is they evoke defensiveness (according to neuroscientist Evian Gordon). And they risk being disregarded for lacking credibility. If you want your feedback to actually drive change, be very specific in your insight and limit your qualifiers to words like “sometimes,” “seems,” and “suggests.”

Recommendation #2

Try to frame your observation in the form of a question. I call this “The Jeopardy Rule.” Instead of complaining to your manager by saying, “My co-workers are lazy,” try, “Sometimes I sense that I’m pouring more effort into this team’s success than others. How concerned should I be about this?”

Recommendation #3

Check your motives before delivering harsh criticism. Ask yourself a few questions: “Is my insight factual or merely an opinion extrapolated from an isolated instance?” “Is my goal to build up or tear down?” “Is my goal to shame or blame someone?” Honesty with yourself precedes the honest communication you expect from others. When you have a concern that you want to share, start with the mindset that your concern is merely an observation—and it might be right or wrong or something in between.

Leadership is about increasing the confidence of others on your team. The manner in which you provide feedback is a key variable in your ability to instill confidence. People who develop this skill will advance further and faster than those that don’t. Confucius said, “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtue.”

Ultimately, open and honest communication is achieved in high-trust environments. And the most important driver of trust is humility. Employees, managers, and senior leaders all have to resist the same temptation of pride. The more humility we display, the more effective we are at delivering feedback; the more effective we are at delivering feedback, the more likely our feedback is to be thoughtfully received.

If you’re uncertain or unfavorable about the level of open and honest communication at your workplace, you go first. Be your own case study. Go to your manager with a thoughtful concern. If your insight is humble, objective, and persuasive, the organization will notice and take action. “But my workplace is NOT a safe environment for me to share concerns…” is a bad excuse.


Steve Marshall

About the Author: Steve Marshall

Steve Marshall coaches, consults, and facilitates for clients.

With over 35 years' experience in revenue and organizational development, strategic planning, leadership coordination, and managing change, Steve comes to the table with real-world skills and deep insight.

Steve has led building and capital expansion campaigns at hospitals, colleges, and large non-profit associations. Steve worked for three prominent national consulting firms and for himself in on-site, supervisory and executive capacities. His work has included revenue and organizational development work for national, regional and community projects and involved hospitals, medical centers, educational institutions, national and community-based organizations.

To Steve, living has been all about the experience – lots of them in the military, adrenaline sports, education and the health care world. Coupled with his lifelong curiosity about most things that he doesn’t know, Steve feels uniquely qualified to comment and ask lots of questions. His quest is to make things the best they can be, to see more people tap their untapped potential, and to create workplace environments where all that can happen.

Steve enjoys life to the fullest, with his wife, two children and two Golden Retrievers. He served on numerous boards in Washington and Colorado, assisted in the creation of the Fort Collins Bicycle Retailers Alliance and is thrilled to see Fort Collins become the 4th City in the nation to achieve Platinum designation as a Bicycle Friendly City from the League of American Bicyclists.

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