The Importance of Frank, Two-Way Communication

I’m always anxious to see the new revisions of the Baldrige Excellence Framework.  Some of the changes seem rather insignificant at first glance, almost like wordsmithing.  I remember when the notion of two-way communication was added to Item 1.1, Organizational Leadership, in 2003.  However, it was intentionally added as a result of the Enron and Tyco scandals in 2002.  Employees inside both organizations had concerns about what was really going on, but they were shut down in an environment of only one-way communication.

In 2005 when Item 1.1 was retitled, “Senior Leadership” to underscore who should really be held accountable for guiding and sustaining the organization, the Criteria also added another word to two-way communication – frank, two-way communication.  I often times ask senior leaders, “When was the last time someone told you something you didn’t want to hear?”  If they struggle to recall such an instance, I tell them that encouraging frank, two-way communication might be an opportunity for personal as well as organizational improvement.

I started thinking about the importance of communication when I read about the passing of a true giant in leadership, Herb Kelleher, co-founder and former CEO/Chairman of Southwest Airlines.  I studied him and his organization in one of my courses in my MBA.  Even before that, I was a huge fan of the airline and its employees as one of their frequent flyers for many years. I always hoped that one day I would have the chance to meet Herb, but it never happened. However, I lived vicariously through the many employees had met him in person.  Every one of them had a story, and it typically sounded like they had met Santa Claus, their favorite rock star, and the Dalai Lama all rolled up into one person.

How do you convey that sense of connection in a company that has grown to more than 50,000 geographically-dispersed employees geographically?  And then I read this quote from Herb Kelleher, “Communication is seeing somebody that works in your department and saying, ‘Emily, I sure am glad to see you back. I heard you had a little difficulty with the baby. How’s the baby doing?’” Now, Herb certainly didn’t think that he could communicate with each employee himself, but he set the tone that rippled through the ranks of management about his expectation that a true leader makes time for that personal approach to communication.

If done well, this can be a powerful tool for engaging your workforce.  If done poorly – or not at all – it can suck every bit of passion and motivation out of an employee.  I once worked for a man who had been a mentor to me.  He had been with the company for over 30 years.  However, he unexpectedly suffered a massive heart attack and was hospitalized for several weeks.  When he finally came back to work, he was an angry person. When I finally got up the courage to ask him why his attitude had changed, he told me that his boss, the VP of Engineering, had never called to inquire about him or even sent a card.  That lack of caring about him as a person outweighed the more than 30 years of enthusiastic commitment to the organization.

If you have a hard time asking about personal issues with your employees, you might try getting started by asking things that demonstrate that you care about them as a person.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Is there anything getting in the way of your doing a good job?

2.  Do you have the equipment, supplies, training, etc. to do a good job?  What else would help?

3.  Is there anything about your job that causes you to worry about your safety or the safety of others?

Do you encourage frank, two-way communication?  How do you know?

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