Open Communication: A Must for Leaders

John Spence

During the Great Recession, I was coaching several companies. I noticed that one of the significant challenges they struggled with was getting people to speak openly and with candor about difficult issues. During COVID, I see the same thing happening. However, encouraging people to come forward with issues is more important than ever during unstable times. That’s why it’s critical that your team feels safe bringing up concerns or delivering bad news. To help you improve communications across your credit union, here are a few suggestions.

Make It Safe

When someone has the courage to tell you about a problem or mistake, thank them. Let the person know that you’re not happy about the situation but are glad they brought it to your attention. If they go way out on a limb to share bad news, don’t cut it off. Run out there, hug them, and tell them that you appreciate them bringing you the information. Demonstrate that people are safe, even celebrated, for telling the truth no matter how painful it may be.

Model Vulnerability

Don’t pretend like you have everything under control. You don’t. Show confidence that everything will be fine, but balance that with the humility to admit when you need help. Let people know that you have concerns. Explain thorny issues openly. Ask for their input and suggestions. If you’ve done a good job hiring, you have many talented people on your team. Take advantage of that by getting everyone involved in developing intelligent solutions and specific action steps.

The 24-Hour Rule

This is a concept I learned from Alan Mulally, the former CEO of the Ford Motor Company. One of his favorite sayings is, “You can’t manage a secret.” So, he created this rule.

“You have 24 hours to take a new and emerging issue, try to understand it, and see if you can resolve it yourself. After that, you have to go public with it. It’s an escalation process. Because with a lot of these issues, we can solve them pretty quickly by applying the intellect we have in this company.”

Dig Deeper

You’re sitting in a meeting, and you can feel the tension in the room. A few people are not engaged, or it is obvious that they are displeased about something the group is discussing. Their body language screams, “I do not agree,” but no one says a word.

I am sure you experienced this many times.

The appropriate way to handle this is to be courageous and do a check-in. Ask people in the room how they are feeling about the topic. If you see someone who seems upset or frustrated, ask them what they are thinking. Draw people out. Encourage them to speak their mind openly. Let them know that you are interested in their perspective and that it is safe to share their concerns or disagreement.

Don’t pretend like you have everything under control. You don’t. Show confidence that everything will be fine, but balance that with the humility to admit when you need help. Let people know that you have concerns. Explain thorny issues openly. Ask for their input and suggestions.

Use I-Statements

One of the most potent ways to deal with difficult conversations is to express things in a nonconfrontational way by using I-Statements. Let me give a few examples, and then I will explain this tool in more detail.

Wrong: I don’t think you care about this topic. You are not engaged at all.

Right: I might be wrong, but it seems to me like you’re not fully engaged, is there something here you disagree with?

Wrong: You have no idea what you’re talking about. You are completely wrong.

Right: I listened to you carefully. However, from my point of view, I’m not sure I agree with you. Let me share how I see the situation.

In the “wrong” instance, you tell someone else how they are thinking or feeling, which is something you can’t possibly know and typically leads to the other person defending themselves and arguing with you. In the “right” instance, you tell people how you are thinking and feeling, which they can’t argue. I-Statements are assertive without being aggressive. It is a way to engage people without making them feel attacked.

It’s hard to talk about the hard things, but they need to be put on the table and discussed if there’s any chance to fix them. I hope you take these tools and practice them. I’m confident they will create a more robust, open, and frank communication style within your organization.


John Spence is an international keynote speaker, executive coach and organizational trainer who has been helping credit unions for more than 15 years.

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