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Being open with employees has never mattered more

May 28, 2020

Being open with employees has never mattered more | Softway | Digital Transformation
Mohammad Anwar
Written By Mohammad Anwar
Leadership Culture

Many organizations’ internal communications strategies are built around a positive facade as a way to sway employee behavior and prevent negative reactions or panic. But everything is smooth sailing—until you hit the iceberg.

Given today’s climate of constant social and economic fluctuation, employees need to know the truth. While COVID-19 might not be the iceberg that takes down your Titanic, the instability generated from this pandemic has created lots of smaller icebergs that together can wreak havoc.

When it comes to internal communications, I believe in being transparent with my employees. Quarterly financial statements, clients taking their services in-house, holiday vacation schedules—everything is fair game. Many of my fellow CEOs fear this level of openness and play their cards close to the vest. The fear of sharing information and scaring employees—or worse—exposing the vulnerabilities of the company, prevents them from having authentic touchpoints with the people who devote their livelihood to the company.

Share openly, but responsibly

Employees should know the information that is going to impact them. As we’ve seen in Q1 and Q2 of 2020, the Coronavirus has flipped everything on its head. Everyone is craving a sense of security right now. Questions like “will I be able to provide for my family?” or questions about healthcare benefits are top of mind for a majority of the US workforce—not to mention our international team in India.

As the CEO, I have a responsibility to keep my teams apprised of our financial standings—especially when it could impact their healthcare benefits during a global health crisis. But I also have a responsibility to give them hope. I don’t want people to go home at night and worry about being able to go to urgent care if they need to. When I address my teams, I do my best to come to each conversation armed with facts and next steps. Whether the news is good or bad, employees know what’s going on in the company and what our plan is moving forward.

Building trust

Lies spread like wildfire. It’s been my experience that withholding information can breed an environment of gossip, misinformation, and paranoia. You might hear rumblings of something within your team or accidentally pick up on some water-cooler chatter. By then, it’s too late and you’re on the defensive. Control the news and manage expectations by being upfront with your teams.

Sometimes, it’s impossible to have all the details ironed out before you need to share information with your employees. You can work with your internal communications team to help craft a message, but the key is to go into each meeting with as much information as you can provide. It’s also important not to “spin” things too much. Deliver your message clearly and plainly so you don’t seem like you’re padding the news or deliberately shrouding it in mystery.

And if you don’t know something—say so. We’re all human. You’re still allowed to not know an answer to a question. When those situations arise, be honest. Say you’ll look into the answer, and then actually do it. Following up promptly with these questions or when you’ve misspoken is also crucial. Perception is all that matters sometimes, and it’s better to admit you were wrong than to be a liar.

When employees trust the information that you share, they will give their all—I’ve seen it. Whether the situation is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, they want to be part of the solution. They know that you have their best interests at heart and feel invested in the outcome.

Share only what’s pertinent, relevant, or actionable

Being transparent doesn’t mean emotionally dumping on your employees. Don’t overburden them with info that isn’t relevant, pertinent, or emotions you haven’t worked through. The repercussions of half-baked ideas or unsubstantiated rumors could lead to mass panic with devastating consequences.

What’s important is sharing the information at the right time, through the right channel, and to be authentic to yourself. Tell the team how you are going to lead them through the rough times. Celebrate with them when things are good. Share information in a way that is meaningful to your team and that shows you were intentional and respectful in the way it was delivered to them.

How to practice transparency while working remotely

Due to social distancing, communication from afar has become a modern practice. The digital mediums we’re relying upon make it easy to ignore a conversation and not bring up important questions until someone else does. We must be proactive in our communication with our teams—especially right now.

Our US team and India team are in different time zones—approximately 11 hours apart. We are currently exploring more options with asynchronous communication, but for important matters I make the time to speak with everyone screen-to-screen. Other ways I’ve been exercising transparent digital communication styles include:

  • Town Hall meetings - Every Wednesday and Friday we have 30-minute town hall meetings to discuss changes, new business, and recap achievements or learnings with the US team. The entire team turns their cameras on—we choose one person to emcee, one person to clap, and we get to business.
  • Just Ask - We created our own webtool to give our employees the courage to ask tough questions in every meeting, whether virtual or face-to-face. This is a proven way to stop people from talking over each other and create structure during virtual calls. The “ask anonymously” feature also gives attendees the ability to ask questions without fear of repercussions. We know that this is a common problem that many organizations are facing right now, so we’ve opened it up to other companies, free just for 2020.

I want Just Ask—sign me up!

  • One-on-one meetings - Checking the temperature of the virtual room is difficult when everyone has their mics on mute, so having one-on-one conversations with my team members is helping me to understand how everyone is truly feeling. As upper management, it’s easy to lose touch with employees on the individual contributor level, so this is my way of reaching out and allowing them to reach up.

What’s best doesn’t always come easy

If it’s not clear yet, transparent communication will require vulnerability from you. You have to be willing to give bad news, not just the highlights. You have to say “I don’t know” more than you’re comfortable with. It also requires that you trust your employees more than you think you already do.

Transparent communication isn’t necessarily an easier option. This level of transparency forces you to be mindful and responsible. It demands that you share information you know will impact your team, and to come to them with a plan, inspire hope, and make sure you’re not dumping on them. It will take practice and intentionality to do, and I can tell you from experience—you won’t always get it right.

But keep at it, and you’ll learn to lean less on prepared words from your communications team and know in your gut what you should say.

Reference article: Open and Transparent Communication

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