Creating Cultures through Effective Communication

Years ago, during a one-on-one meeting with a well-intentioned supervisor, I raised a concern in our meeting. Quickly, I was told, “Keep your pie hole shut.” While I knew they were well intentioned – even though the words were inappropriate and directive -I learned that my information wasn’t welcomed when it could rock the boat or cause friction. From that day, I chose silence over sharing, realizing that the supposed open-door policy wasn’t genuinely open.

We’ve heard a lot about non-effective communication and not much about how it shows up in our cultures. Events of this week have caused me to think about when people are able to share their opinions and perspectives with another person, mainly their supervisor or leader, and have the perspective heard. Often, I will say that you can’t work on culture if you aren’t willing to look at communication. It’s difficult because some of these interactions/conversations happen in private. How are you supposed to gauge how leaders or staff are doing when you aren’t a part of it? How can we truly make change if a culture of communication isn’t fostered by leadership?

Authentic Belonging

Ensuring that everyone feels they belong is crucial. Creating an environment of belonging requires open communication—sharing thoughts and perspectives. I was amazed that in a BambooHR article using research from April 2023 on making or breaking a new hire in 44 days that there wasn’t of communication. People are looking to find friends at work; they want a mentor on boarding buddy; they want to shadow someone. While all these things are great, they don’t really gauge our success on the job. They help us learn our role and responsibilities, but what happens when you learn for the first time that “this isn’t how we say things here.” We want to belong and quickly we find ourselves becoming the other.

Culture of communication begins with the leader. If my leader felt the need to silence me, they must have experienced a silencing themselves. Culture begins at the top and shows up through forms of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal.

Defining Workplace Culture

The term “Workplace Culture” is often used but rarely defined clearly. According to SHRM, 64% of companies don’t have a defined workplace culture. They recognize its importance but may struggle to shape or change it. Some organizational cultures have hierarchy and privilege and don’t share it equally with their employees. Some organizations apply for awards and define their success based on survey results that no one trusts are anonymous. No one wants to be the person to share what the culture is really like. While the open door policy sounds good, not all doors are open to ideas or opinions.

Communication as the Cornerstone of Culture

Culture starts with communication. It shows up in one-on-one meetings, leadership meetings, board meetings, holiday messages that are written. Culture isn’t found nor defined in an award received, but in the day-to-day interactions being lived. Gallup reports that engaged employees outperform others by up to 202%. Engaged employees aren’t just measured through their productivity: they’re measured by how willing they are to share difficult information or ideas that may be beyond the norm. Cultures that suppress open dialogue create a facade of safety that ultimately stifles growth and innovation.

Employees need their leadership to walk the walk. This means that communication is demonstrated from the beginning of the onboarding process and breathed into the daily interactions of individuals. Brené Brown called it The Rumble. Allowing individuals to verbalize, with respect, their thoughts with leadership and leadership being open to hear them. I’m not saying that leaders need to share everything. I am saying that leaders create an environment where friction can be experienced openly while remaining in relationship without repercussions.

You may wonder whether or not you have a culture that fosters open communication. Ask a few questions:

  • Are there moments when someone’s words caused discomfort in a meeting?
  • Have you ever asked or instructed a direct report to remain silent because of your own discomfort?
  • Have you asked someone to remain silent because you knew it wouldn’t land well with upper leadership – even though you knew it needed to be shared?
  • Do you experience that your leader listens when you share your perspective or only to a few leaders?

If you answered yes to any of these, there’s a chance that your organizational culture isn’t inviting voices. perspectives, or opinions. It could mean that the organization’s ability to innovate and grow is stifled. There is an opportunity for leadership to reflect and change.

Embracing a New Paradigm

Companies spend billions annually on training and certifications. The global corporate training market is projected to reach $417.21 billion by 2027. Rapid changes in healthcare, automation, sustainable energy, biotechnology, telecommunications, quantum computing, and AI highlight the need for continual learning. However, the fundamental building block of all organizations and relationships is—communication— and often it gets overlooked.

Effective communication can transform organizational cultures. Leaders and employees alike need training in communicating with each other so that their ideas land well. So much time and emotional energy is wasted because leadership, leadership teams, boards and employees are missing the mark with each other. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a restrictive-process driven organization or fast-paced, innovative environments, everyone can learn to express themselves in ways that others can hear without causing offense, defensiveness, or conflict.

Communication in Onboarding

Leadership must be self-reflective and provide support around communication that creates culture and acceptance. Recognizing that employees are well-intentioned is crucial. Of course, years ago, I was sharing something that I thought was important. It did challenge the status quo and I only shared it because I thought it was important to share. Employees desire to be heard without fear. Towers Watson found that companies with effective communication practices are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers. For leaders to create freedom of expression, they must create environments where everyone feels free to communicate. We need to dialogue rather than monologue.

Everyone, including the CEO, needs to have training on how their communication lands. They need to understand how it’s impacting their leadership team. Learn how it’s being transferred to their directors, managers and supervisors. Is it work? Of course it is. Is it worth it? Absolutely! In coaching, clients have shared with me that their communication missteps have caused them to miss out on promotions or created conflict where they never intended conflict. When we focus on communication from the top down, we’re creating cultures that are led by example. This approach avoids someone getting in their own way prior to making a bad impression; it allows people to grow so that they’re ready for that promotion; it assists new leaders and C-Suite individuals to show up more fully to their position with their executive team and with the board. It is true engagement from everyone and true empowerment.

Creating cultures that support productive and respectful communication is essential for fostering environments of genuine belonging and innovation. I have heard these cultures labeled: Unicorn Cultures. What if it was so pervasive that we no longer called these organization cultures unicorns? By prioritizing open, non-defensive, and non-confrontational communication, organizations can unlock their teams’ full potential. As the world of work continues to evolve, let us focus on freer communication to build inclusive, thriving workplaces where everyone feels heard and valued.

Robin Miller is our Executive and Leadership Communication Coach. She specializes in team interpersonal communication and executive communication using the Advanced 360LiC Assessment. Contact ARTiculate: Real & Clear today to learn more.

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