Encouraging open dialogue in your team

open dialogue

Recently I wrote about why having a team that doesn’t speak up can be a terrible situation for a leader. That’s all well and good, but how do we go about encouraging open dialogue in our team? Open dialogue enables team members to speak freely, offer suggestions and *gasp*, tell you when you might be wrong.

How to encourage open dialogue in your team

There are a number of ways to promote open dialogue in your team. Many of the best ways are simply behavioural, and it’s amazing how many leaders fail to see that they are doing things that actually work against creating open dialogue.

1. Encourage open dialogue by paying attention

Many leaders have an “open door policy”, but there is a difference between having an open door and people actually walking inside. Paying attention may sound obvious, but when you get this wrong, you actively discourage open dialogue.

Many leaders have an open door policy, but there is a difference between having an open door and people actually walking inside.

Even seemingly trivial, small signs show people that you want to hear what they have to say. To show that you are paying attention, try the following:

  • Put your electronic devices on silent mode, turn them face down or turn them off. This shows that you can’t hear the phone or see a screen, because messages that you get right now don’t matter.
  • Make eye contact. Don’t check your email while talking. Finish what you’re doing and then give your undivided attention.
  • Postpone the discussion if you can’t have it right now. Instead of putting in a half-baked effort to pay attention when you clearly have something else on your mind, postpone this conversation until later. Be careful not to say “come back later” because it can mean you’re trying to postpone indefinitely. Instead, choose a specific time. “I have a phone call to make, but can we reconvene at 2:45?” You may even send a calendar invitation to formalise the discussion.
  • Listen actively. Yes, we’ve all heard of active listening and I’m not going to rehash it here. It simply means responding in a way that shows you are paying attention.

Paying attention tells people that you are interested in listening and encouraging open dialogue. If you want to learn more about this, read about the power of paying attention.

2. Encourage open dialogue by asking for and accepting suggestions

There is nothing wrong with asking your team for ideas to improve the way you work. In fact, it will hopefully encourage them to come forward. You do need to be careful about asking for too much advice, as it may undermine the team’s confidence that you know what you’re doing.

When somebody in your team has a suggestion, try your best to adopt it where possible. Obviously it would be silly to take on every idea that people have. However, showing your team that you are willing to change your approach based on someone else’s idea is a powerful reinforcement of open dialogue.

This shows your team that if they have ideas, you are open to accepting them. Hopefully, this will help to keep the good ideas coming.

If someone has a suggestion that you don’t believe can be adopted or won’t work for some reason, explain that to them. Include the reasons why. Whatever you do, don’t accept the idea, thank them for coming and then ignore it completely. They will only take that as a sign that you don’t really value what they have to say.

3. Encourage open dialogue by giving credit where it’s due

Stories about bosses taking credit for their team’s work are plentiful. At Thoughtful Leader, these stories are frowned upon and these leaders are figuratively showered with rotten tomatoes.

However, you don’t have to be like them. When someone does have a great idea and it’s implemented successfully, publicly give them credit for it. This may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how often this is overlooked, even unintentionally.

Giving credit makes you look honourable and appreciative. Bad leaders will be fearful that their superiors will think that their team member is better than them, which is why they sometimes grab the credit. If you’re that insecure, then perhaps your team member *is* better qualified to do your job.

4. Encourage open dialogue by communicating with your team often, in different forums

“But at the monthly team meeting nobody said they didn’t like the idea!”

Perhaps your team members are uncomfortable raising their objections in a crowded forum of their peers. This is why you need to offer team members multiple ways to raise their opinion without feeling exposed.

This could be by encouraging private conversations, in addition to group meetings. The open door policy allows people to come and talk in private when they need to. If you sense that they feel uncomfortable in the office, change the scenery by going for coffee instead.

Remember that not all team members are created equal. Some people will offer their opinion easily whilst others will be less comfortable with open dialogue. It’s your job to help them become more comfortable.

5. Encourage open dialogue by accepting and acting on feedback

Along with paying attention, you can also emphasise open dialogue by accepting feedback. Not only do you need to accept it, you need to act on it if necessary. If there are things that you’re doing that are making people unhappy or uncomfortable, you need to take action if you can.

The worst thing you can do is listen to the feedback, say “thank you for being open with me”, and then promptly ignore the issue altogether along with any suggestions. This is a sure fire way to smother any efforts to create an open dialogue with your team.

Open dialogue is a valuable commodity in any team. Ideas are free flowing, feedback is forthcoming and people feel like leaders are listening. If you care about the people in your team and improving the way you work, encouraging open dialogue should be fairly high on your list of items to focus on.

How have you or your leaders encouraged open dialogue in your team? Did it work? Could it have been better? Leave a comment below – I‘d love to read them.

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