By Harrison Monarth
FORTUNE -- Paulett Eberhart is no shrinking violet. Brought in to turn the ship around at Philadelphia-based engineering and technology firm CDI, the executive told her team to be "brutally honest, but in a respectful way," even if they had to pound their fists on the table to get her attention.
A big problem at many businesses, Eberhart recently told the New York Times, is that people don't spend enough time communicating, especially if they see something going wrong.
It's one thing to agree to offer honest feedback when the boss demands open communication. It's quite another to be courageous enough to speak up. Fear of being pegged as a dissenter or worse stifles about a third of U.S. workers (34%), according to a study of over 100,000 workers by consulting firm DecisionWise.
Cultivating a climate of open communication starts at the top, with the CEO or founder setting the tone for the rest of the leaders of an organization. Even a single incident of punishment for speaking up the "wrong way" can destroy management's credibility.
Linda Henman, president of Henman Performance Group, says the best way to encourage any behavior is to reward and model it. "If executives want openness and transparency, they should start by being open and transparent in their own communication." Then, they should create routine ways to hear directly from employees, she explains.
Take a page from General Motors (GM) CEO Dan Akerson's playbook. Akerson regularly hoofs it through the halls to check the temperature of his staff. Henman suggests walking around and inviting feedback is a good place to start. "When you hear something, thank the person for his or her candor," she advises.
It might even make sense to rethink the office floor plan, as physical walls can easily turn into perceived barricades. Even though employees are working remotely in record numbers, executives have technology on their side to aid the practice of open and frequent communication in the workplace.
Whether they're halfway across the globe or in the office next door, leaders need to grow a thick skin, because opening the floor for commentary could lead to a flood of feedback, both positive and negative. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh not only welcomes commentary from his staff, but also encourages customers to let him know how the company's doing -- even if they are unhappy with a product or service. The trick is to manage your knee-jerk reactions when you receive unflattering reviews.
Lashing out defensively will shut people down. "Shooting the messenger is the pinnacle of foolish," notes D. Kevin Berchelmann, CEO of management consultancy Triangle Performance. "The bad news continues, but you just joined the ranks of 'last to know.'"
Embrace the bearers of bad news and encourage honesty. Leaders can help employees with this by coaching them on how to properly present and argue their findings and ideas: clearly, concisely, with evidence, and sound reasoning. "They need to know that you want all relevant information," Berchelmann adds, not only the status of things that have gone exactly as planned.
If employees are shy or reluctant to offer their ideas and views, managers may want to designate a devil's advocate whose sole job is to poke holes in proposed solutions. This person must be in a position to understand the subject matter at a deeper level, able to see the drawbacks of a given idea and feel empowered to offer dissent. It shouldn't always be the same person, and colleagues should nonetheless be encouraged to think critically and speak up, whether they are the "designated dissenter" or not.
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It's also important for leaders to be mindful of the tone they are setting in their communications to staff. You could easily be discouraging dissent without even knowing it. "People need to know that you are going to be for them, even when they don't do well," advises Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries for Leaders.
In the end, though, you actually have to want to hear what other people think. "Transparency and communication requires openness and a willingness to listen to peoples' ideas, thoughts and opinions," says Jim Scott, co-founder of Minneapolis-based creative agency Mono. Encouraging a diversity of opinions will ultimately help a business grow and improve, Scott says.
Telling employees you want their honest feedback is a step in the right direction. Showing them that you mean it is even better.
Harrison Monarth is the founder of GuruMaker -- School of Professional Speaking. He's also the author of The Confident Speaker and Executive Presence.
By Alex Taylor
FORTUNE -- On Friday afternoons, a group of top GM (GM) executives and engineers leave headquarters in downtown Detroit and heads for GM's proving grounds in Milford, Mich. for "knothole drives." Originated by Mark Reuss, head of GM's North American operations, the drives allow the executives to test new vehicles -- along with their competitors -- in successive stages of development and offer an assessment. The drives act MOREDec 17, 2012 5:00 AM ET
Pick up those new GPS systems, now on sale at Best Buy, Wal-Mart and other fine stores for under $100!
Don't forget that flat-screen TV that's suddenly within your price range!
Remember to stop by the gigundo superstore to stock up on potato chips, lawn furniture and frozen shrimp!
Swing by the enormous drugstore! Get medicine! Print 100 pictures for only $1.00! While you're there, load up on toys, nostrums and personal care MOREBing - Nov 27, 2009 11:04 AM ET
1970: Chevy Corvair owned by my friend Stillman finally gives out with about 250,000 miles on it. With tremendous respect, we take it to the parking lot of Shea Stadium, take off the wheels and put it up on blocks, saying farewell to what was, in truth, the Galapagos tortoise of automobiles. It did very little, but what it did it did incomparably.
1978: Pontiac V8. Bench seats. Very comfortable. Solid MOREBing - Mar 31, 2009 11:54 AM ET
Dear Uncle Larry and Aunt Bea,
It's been a hard weekend, which is the only excuse I have for not answering your e-mail sooner. I'm sure the May 9th date will work out fine for the barbecue. I don't have anything planned for that week, or the week before. Or the week after, for that matter, although I do have a couple of interviews for excellent management positions in a number MOREBing - Mar 30, 2009 11:03 AM ET
You could make the case that this era has produced possibly the worst bad guys in business history. Think about that for a minute. That's really saying something. They've got a lot of competition. Carnegie and Frick, who shot their own workers. The guys who fomented the Teapot Dome, whatever that was. Who remembers?
Somewhat more recently, during the days I still wore suspenders and power ties, there were a lot MOREBing - Jan 27, 2009 12:44 AM ET
I don't care if the Detroit business model is wrong right now. I don't care if their leadership is the biggest bunch of bozos who ever drew breath. The fact is, everybody looks kind of stupid right now, don't they? And you can't allow an entire industry to go down because its leadership is lousy, can you?Bing - Dec 10, 2008 10:35 AM ET
Just a question I've been thinking about since yesterday... What do you think the boys at the Big Three auto companies were thinking about when each took his own private jet to Washington to ask for help? A number of subsequent queries suggest themselves:
Are they stupid?
Assuming that they are NOT completely stupid, didn't anybody consider this might not be the absolutely best move, at least in terms of the optics?
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