We must have open and honest communication

How many times have you heard this being said in your organisation? Or seen it as one of your company’s values?

I often run focus groups or interview people in organisations to understand what they want in their communication and inevitably this comes out – we must have open and honest conversations. When I probe this a little bit further it unearths all sorts of issues – for me it’s a communication and organisational minefield.

Organisationally or as a leader I really think you are shooting yourself in the foot if you put this one out as one of your values or principles.

I hear you cry out in protest and wonder what sort of a communicator I am, so let me explain.

A simple situation that occurs in all organisations – the Executive team has a discussion and recognises that their strategy needs to change fairly dramatically. As they have this first discussion they don’t know what this means and what the implications will be; they just know that profits are falling and market share is shrinking.

So what do they do after they have this discussion – should they rush out and immediately tell all staff that they need a new strategy as they are in dire straits – is this being open and honest?

I hear some of you shouting that of course they should.

Or do they wait until they have some well-formed views and are ready to implement the strategy?

Let’s say it takes them 6 months to develop the strategy and when they do it has implications for head count but they don’t yet know who will be impacted or when they will be impacted.

What should they be telling staff at this point?

And then 6 months later a manager is having the conversation with his team telling them that there will be job losses. Is it fair for the member of staff to then suggest that the manager hasn’t been open and honest because he must have known for months this was going to happen?

My point here is that for leaders (parents, partners and friends) we have to make decisions about what information we give at what point. In this situation would it have been useful for the organisation and the people involved to be honest and say upfront that they need a new strategy and it may lead to redundancies? Whilst it may have been the open and honest thing to do the implications for the business could be dire as people face a long period of uncertainty with little information.

In all case you have to question what is being achieved by being open and honest.The art of good change management is to give information in a way and at a time that gives people an opportunity to take ownership for their response to the outcomes.

This becomes particularly difficult as everyone’s version of what it means to be open and honest varies – for some it means “tell me everything you know as soon as you know it” and for others it means “treat me with respect and tell me when it’s appropriate and it’s relevant to me”

If you think of this in a family situation – if you and your partner are thinking of moving to a new city would you rush out and tell friends, family and children the minute you start discussing it or would you chose points along the way as your thoughts developed. The timing for each person or group to be involved in these discussions may vary as you may want to get their views or manage expectations. You would make decisions about who you were being open and honest with and at what point.

Whilst no doubt there is always good intent by saying that you will be open and honest the reality is that it’s difficult and inappropriate to meet the expectations of others when making this statement. And sometimes treating people with respect may mean choosing when to be open and honest.


2 Responses to “We must have open and honest communication”

  1. 1 Leon 17/08/2011 at 2:49 pm

    Very relevant blog considering it took months for Julia Gillard to spell out details of the carbon tax and provide Tony Abbott with plenty of ammunition.

    Love to see a blog sometime on the use (and abuse) of titles in organizations, i.e. why do we seem to have a proliferation of ‘managing directors’ and ‘co-heads” in firms these days!

  2. 2 Nathalie Himmelrich 24/08/2011 at 5:40 am

    I’ve been pondering this topic in regards to relationships multiple times and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is about
    1. timing
    2. readiness and
    3. benefit
    So sometimes even not speaking something might be the best way. Here are my thoughts on it: http://ezinearticles.com/?How-Much-Information-Is-Needed-When-Telling-The-Truth?&id=5578443
    Interesting topic, Thanks Cath.

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