Does your environment allow open and honest communication

There are some bosses who just don’t like to hear the truth. They only want to hear good news. They don’t want to deal with any problems. Could this be your boss…..

Dilbert - CEO truthedDILBERT © 2015 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved

Wouldn’t it be great if the truth really did have that effect? Well the CEO of Enron certainly got burned when the truth about his company came out. But all too often, the culture of an organisation discourages open and honest communication.

One major integration programme I worked on had a few issues and had some parts of the programme running behind schedule. But the lead consultants convinced the Integration Head to put a positive spin on progress rather than be open and honest. The programme office team disagreed and there was an uncomfortable confrontation. 

The consultants wanted their involvement to be seen very positively. After all, this was an important and lucrative client. The Integration Head wanted a positive spin because he had witnessed how a colleague had been torn to shreds and effectively sidelined when their programme had reported problems. No one was prepared to be open and honest, because the culture absolutely discouraged it. The programme office did manage to get factual inaccuracies removed  and the exaggerated performance moderated, but the end report did not really reflect the full reality. Whilst not completely happy with this, it was an acceptable compromise because overall the Integration would be hugely beneficial to the organisation.  But that is not always the case.

Changing an organisation’s culture to allow honest and open communication is a huge challenge. It requires drive from the top down through all layers of management. It requires training and constant reinforcement through communications and above all else, the actions of management. It requires the rooting out of bad behaviour and practices. Staff need to believe that they really can challenge and object to ‘the old ways’ without fear of retribution or consequence.

You can start to make a difference no matter what the overall culture of your organisation is. Be open and honest in your own communications with your team. Develop the right rapport and respect with your bosses and sponsors so that you can report honestly. Don’t give up even if things start badly.

If at first you don’t succeed….

I had to deliver a presentation over a conference call about a new control requirement being imposed on programmes. The requirement was not well received. The messenger (i.e. me) was metaphorically shot, which was bad news as one of the key recipients was going to become my boos. I actually had some sympathy because the requirement wasn’t well thought out but had been imposed by central management. Nonetheless I now had a problem.

I mitigated that problem by demonstrating my value through delivery and gradually building my credibility with my new boss. I maintained an open and honest communication approach and showed he could trust my reporting and my actions. That boss has subsequently asked me to work for him several more times. Likewise, team members ask to come and work on my projects. All sides like and respect that openness and honesty.

Sometimes you have to walk away….

It doesn’t always work out well. Some time ago I had taken over a problem programme and instigated a number of changes to resolve the issues. The organisation was going through some significant changes and challenges as well and some of the problems faced by my programme were related to them, but the new management team didn’t want to hear that open, honest message.  It culminated in a discussion with the head of central IT where he told me more innovative solutions were required. I asked for an example and he explained one. He didn’t know who had come up with the solution – it had been me!. When I informed him of this it didn’t go down well and that was the start of my exit. No bad things as I couldn’t work in the new closed culture.

I think most organisations recognise the benefits or an open and honest communication strategy and both aspire and work towards it. Inevitably some are better at it than others. But, as I have demonstrated, you can do your own bit for your project or programme. Thankfully, the number of organisations where you would be forced to leave because of an open and honest communication approach as I did, are getting fewer and fewer. For me, it was about professional integrity.

What communication style do you adopt in your project or programme. Do you have your own story to share? Leave a comment below.

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