How to open the lines of team communication: Expert Q&A

by Sean Oliver, on August 27, 2020

Earlier this week, we shared part of our conversation with Associate Professor Keith O. Hunter, an expert on organizational behavior from the University of San Francisco. In this post, we’re including some more valuable ideas from Keith specifically about how leaders can be more effective when it comes to getting employee feedback and encouraging two-way dialogue with their teams.

Crew: Why should managers prioritize getting employee feedback?

Keith: Feedback at all levels of an organizational structure is essential, but one issue even communicative leaders sometimes overlook is how they interpret employee feedback and react to it. It’s not uncommon for a manager to indicate directly what they expect or value from a contributor’s work. However, I think some managers underestimate how much they are saying to an employee when they ask questions or apply a performance metric. Just by asking your staff a question, you're making a suggestion about what matters. 

An important kind of question is the kind that helps your people know that you value—and act on—their voice. Respecting them for their closer-to-the-frontline knowledge and experience, and actually caring about collective progress and success means caring about what the people who report to you are experiencing, needing, accomplishing, or struggling with. Consider how you’ve incentivized people to respond. Do you make it safe to be candid or are you shooting the messenger, perhaps without even realizing it? When you’re asking questions or opening yourself up for feedback, are you framing  the inquiry in a manner that helps them understand why their upward engagement is a good thing for the organization? 

Addressing these questions is an important part of the process of obtaining and using feedback from your contributors, and it’s also very important to close the loop with people when you take action in response to feedback or make the decision not to take action. Report to your team what everyone said and what you’re changing as a result. This helps drive up engagement and commitment. For example, you can ask an employee, “Is there a way you'd like to do this job that might work better for you?” They might not have an answer that day, but they’ll usually think about it and the next time they do that task, the wheels will be turning and they'll realize “I am an expert at doing this. I might actually have something to say about how we could improve.” 

Giving frontline workers a voice can have a great impact on their job satisfaction and on how they respond to dissatisfaction. Rather than actively disengaging or neglecting their work duties, people who feel they have a voice are more likely to respond constructively (check out the Exit, Voice, Loyalty, Neglect model for more about this). You might spend a little bit more time checking in with people and giving real attention to what they have to say, but you could gain an opportunity to change a process that's been wasting resources or head off highly damaging movement toward disengagement among your people.

Crew: What are some ways two-way dialogue supports an open, trusting culture?

Keith: In addition to talking to the team or organization about KPIs, quarterly earnings, or cutbacks, leaders should give some visible attention to issues or contributions that have come from the frontline if you have actually been sustaining two-way dialogue. This can be transformational, because it shows that every role in the organization is appreciated and considered an integral part of the organization’s success. This produces more committed and innovative results than purely transactional approaches in which the ability to reward and punish are the primary tools for influencing behavior. 

If the guy who mops the meat counter actually helped change the way something was done so that the workplace could be safer or so that customers could be better satisfied, celebrate that right there in the same space where you would have talked about record earnings that year. This tells your people that you’re a leader who pays attention to the whole picture and who sees them as more than mindless drones who are expected to merely comply rather than proudly make the most valuable contributions they can.

Another benefit leaders and decision-makers get from two-way dialogue is much needed situational awareness. When designing and implementing a new company process or policy, you should execute it in a manner that's sensitive to the broader needs and actual capabilities of the organization as much as possible. This means not only looking at your direct reports or focusing on specific challenges, but also thinking about the broader impact a planned or emergent change may have within your organization. Sustained two-way engagement helps you become aware of potential vulnerabilities before an issue triggers your looking for one. Having robust communication up and down the line is one way leaders can improve their ability to see upcoming challenges or threats from further away while there is time to course correct or make preparations. 

Covid-19 has called for a lot of modifications to how we work and communicate. I encourage leaders and managers not to get too overwhelmed with anxiety around the kinds of issues we’ve been talking about here. You may be surprised at how well you can do, just by trying some of these ideas out using whatever technology or situation you have to work with. We are all getting pretty good at teleconferencing, but consider using mobile communications tools to encourage check-ins and social connection that may be missing at the moment. And make sure your meetings include content that gets at these aspects of respect, acknowledgment, and commitment.


We appreciate Keith sharing his valuable advice, which can truly help all types of managers take their leadership to the next level. And for those interested in more ideas about how to juggle all the demands of leading teams during a pandemic, feel free to check out our other blog posts and resources about COVID-19.

Topics:COVID-19Best PracticesEmployee EngagementInternal Communications