Oswald Letter

Honest, Open, Two-Way Communication

I’ve been thinking a lot about employee communication lately. I’ve been thinking about what makes for good, effective communication and how it can be a powerful force within any organization. I’ve decided that good communication must be H.O.T.

H.O.T. stands for honest, open, and two-way.

Honest. To me, honesty in communication is the bedrock. If honesty isn’t your guiding principle in communication, nothing else matters because it won’t work. Without honesty, your communication efforts are doomed to fail.

Abraham Lincoln said, “It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” This is so true when it comes to employee communication. If you’re dishonest, someone will know.

You tell employees that the company’s new health plan is better than ever, when really it’s only cheaper. You’re doomed. First, someone who works for you probably did the analysis on the new plan. He knows the plan isn’t better. This person probably has a few friends at work. He’s likely to mention to them that the plan really isn’t better, it’s just saving the company some money. But in the end that doesn’t even matter because the employees are going to use the new plan and will discover for themselves, one by one, that the new plan really isn’t better. And then they’ll know that they’ve been lied to. Your credibility will be shot and employees will find it hard to believe anything you tell them. You just became the boy  who cried wolf.

You need to respect your employees enough to be honest with them. You see, respect is a two-way street. If you don’t respect your people enough to tell them the truth, they won’t respect you. It’s that plain and simple. Honesty is the best policy.

Open. Communication also needs to be open. You can’t embargo information — that doesn’t work either. This goes back to the respect thing. When you don’t communicate openly, you’re treating your people the way you treat your children. You’re in essence saying, “You’re not responsible enough to handle the information.” You need to treat your employees like the adults they are and share information openly with them.

So often, I hear executives say that the information is too important or sensitive to share with employees. They fear that the employees might leave and take the information to a competitor. I’d argue that nine times out of 10 the information that is withheld really wouldn’t give your rival a competitive advantage. Things like monthly sales or profit figures or new initiatives that the company is launching don’t give competitors an advantage, they give employees something to get excited about or a reason to work even harder.

People aren’t stupid. If you have a new initiative going on at the company, someone must know about it. If it’s an exciting new project, they’re going to want to talk about it. Word gets out one way or another. And when everyone learns about it through the grapevine, they’ll wonder why you didn’t tell them about this great thing going on in the company. The honest answer is that I didn’t trust you with the information.

Sure, I understand things like patents and trade secrets. I understand not disclosing certain information until it’s safe to do so, but I believe that these situations are the exception and not the rule. If you don’t trust your employees with information, they’re not going to trust you.

Two-Way. Information also has to be two-way. You have a lot to say that your people want to hear. But they also have messages that you need to hear. Remember, to communicate effectively, you need to listen more than you speak. Many executives lose sight of that. They grow accustomed to making proclamations and being in control.

That control thing can be very dangerous. Some managers so dearly want to be in control of the situation that they avoid allowing employees to voice their views, questions, and concerns. They think they might lose control of the room if they let employees react to the message they’ve just delivered. So instead of risking a question they can’t answer or a comment that might make them look bad, they shut off the two-way communication. They make their pronouncements and exit quickly.

The problem is that employees are going to ask those questions, voice those concerns, and share those views whether you’re there to hear them or not. I believe you’re better off being there to respond, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, than sneaking away. When you don’t allow for a dialogue with your people, you’re just asking for them to come to their own conclusions about what is transpiring, and their collective imaginations can often come up with things that are much worse than the truth.

Really, two-way communication is putting the first two principles — honest and open — on display. If you’re willing to openly share the truth with people, then answering a few pointed questions or responding to someone’s concerns becomes pretty straightforward.

So when you’re communicating with your people, I urge you to make your communications H.O.T.

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