Achieving Open and Honest Communication
Throughout the Organisation

By Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
First published in The Spinal Column, NMHS, Nelson, New Zealand October, 1999

What is the most important quality of a healthy family?

I asked Virginia Satir this question back in the early 1980's when she was my family therapy teacher and I was becoming a family therapist.

Her answer was direct:

"Healthy families have a rule that each family member can honestly say what they experience and ask for what they want."

Virginia was a pioneer in the field of family therapy, helping to originate the creation of the field in the 1960's. (For further study I suggest her book, "Peoplemaking.")

As I watched her work with families, one consistent pattern was her support for people to describe their experiences of problems. And she also helped them do that without whining or blaming. Then she encouraged them to ask for what they wanted instead of the problem. While this is a simple idea, when practiced, it works wonders to bring about a healthy family life.

My work with families during the 1980's and early 1990's is an important basis for what emerged more recently as Values-Based Leadership (VBL).

It is easy to be open and honest about what we appreciate. When someone does something that we like, saying "thanks" is easy. Saying "what you did helped me a lot" is natural.

Speaking openly and honestly about painful problems is sometimes another matter. If I tell my boss about my problem, will he or she care? Listen? Tell me to shut up and work? Insult me in return, accusing me of complaining?

These are relevant questions to be sure.

Let's suppose some of the answers to these questions is "no" and that my boss stifles my voice. What then?

If that happens, often people will give up on the idea that speaking about the problem to their boss. Instead they simmer, gossip or worse.

I was facilitating a VBL retreat for a group of twenty-four sales managers in one of my client organisations a few years back. The night before the five-day retreat, I was chatting with three of the managers about the issues in the organisation, one of which was the temper of the national sales manager, the top person in their division.

I said to this small group of managers: "If the participants can bring up real issues and persistent problems, such as this one, there is a good chance we can resolve them.

One manager replied, "You're not going to expect us to engage in any terminal candor in this meeting, are you? I need this job!"

Over the years, I've found that many employees share the notion that candor can be costly, or that openness and honesty can get you into real trouble.

Why does this happen?

Fear And Closed Communication
Comes From A Hierarchical Structure

Part of the reason for fear is the history of authority and decision-making structures in most modern organisations.

From Alexander the Great's army to today's modern corporations and government agencies, authority and decision-making have been organised in a hierarchy ruled by a strict chain of command. The organisation is conceived as a kind of pyramid with orders emanating from the "top" by more important people, "down" to less important people closer to the "bottom" of the organisation. Sound familiar? Nearly every corporate executive team responsible for organisations in the 1990's inherited rather than created this hierarchical structure..

Taken to its extreme, such organisations turn employees into serfs in a kind of organisational fiefdom "ruled" by the executive elite group. Communication flows one way, orders are given and people are expected to execute the orders.

What is the problem with a strict chain of command decision-making structure?

While such organisations may be able to respond to certain emergencies efficiently, such a structure, strictly applied, is not usually good at learning, providing an atmosphere of respect for employees, or developing high-quality services.

That's because when communication goes only one way, it cuts off feedback loops in the organisation.

What is feedback?

Feedback is a word invented by Norbert Wiener, first published in his book, "The Human Use for Human Beings", in 1950. He is a co-founder of the field of cybernetics. Feedback is the information that flows in a system that allows the system to know the way in which it needs to change or when it needs to stay the same.

When information from parts of a health care organisation is blocked, it prevents the organisation from making needed changes. Closed feedback loops also keep it from knowing what is working well. If the thermostat in your building or car doesn't get feedback from the thermometer, the furnace or heater can't correct itself to keep things in the desired temperature range.

When YOU encounter a problem in the course of your workday that you need help with, the organisation needs find out about that. It needs that flow of information that you can provide as a source of corrective feedback. And it needs to support you in expressing that information. A closed loop of feedback will mean that the problem will likely continue.

Whether the problem involves services, resources needed to accomplish a goal, breakdowns in communicating, a downturn in morale, or whatever - if you can't solve it by yourself, it is important that the information you have goes to whoever can help.

Sometimes that means going to your boss with the information about the problem. If after discussing the situation you and your boss disagree on what to do, you may need to express your disagreement, or say "no" to him or her.

And if a strict chain of command is operating, saying no is against the rules.

When Problems Remain Unsolved
Through Closed Feedback Loops

So if there IS a strict chain of command operating where a person works, and they've encountered a problem that they don't feel they can bring up to their boss, what happens then?

Here are some of the predictable results of closed feedback loops:

-The organisation fails to learn how to solve the problem.
-The person who voiced the problem may have to live with it and the subsequent values violations they may experience.
-Someone else may get their values violated by the situation.
-The problem continues to happen.
-The person with the problem may feel disrespected because of inaction or a lack of being understood.
-The disrespect may "fester".
-The person may try to heal the disrespect by "venting" it with others they work with, and this sometimes fans the flames of cynicism and negativity.

If multiple problems persist and people in a group can't get the requisite help to solve them, their simmering disrespect may result in a kind of psychological infection that, through repeated values violations, results in negativity in other parts of their lives and a desire to post Dilbert cartoons where they work.

-Innovation may be stifled.
-Turnover may increase.
-Quality services and care may degrade.

What Is An Organisation To Do?

NMHS, like most modern organisations, is a hybrid of old and new. When it was created, it likely had more of a strict chain of command than it does now. As we enter the 21st century, this method of control and communication has too many inherent limitations to operate effectively in this new world, whatever it is becoming.

A number of organisations have adopted some fine processes for dealing with the problem of closed feedback loops. They instituted specialized processes to create open and honest communication. That creates a kind of an "immune system" to heal organisational injuries. Some examples follow.

IBM's Open Door Policy

In the 1920's, IBM instituted a process they called the Open Door policy. Here's how it worked:

Employees with an unresolved problem were expected to take their problems to their managers. If they didn't get them resolved to their satisfaction, they had a right to take the problem directly to the CEO. Thomas J. Watson Jr., who was CEO from 1956 to 1971, described the glowing benefits of the policy in his book, "Father, Son and Company". He said that through this policy, he could get a "measure of IBM's health", that on several occasions, "a single protest led to a substantial change in the way we did business", that "the Open Door was a morale builder. It made them (employees) feel free to approach a personnel manager or the person running the plant when they had a problem."

Watson's office handled two or three hundred cases a year, and he spent twenty five percent of his time on problems voiced via the Open Door policy.

After forty hears of using the Open Door, 1960's IBM gave birth to the era of computers and became the world's most profitable company.

General Electric's "Work-Out" Meetings

General Electric, one of the world's largest corporations, found a way to give employees a voice.

CEO Jack Welch and other managers practiced a forum called "Work-Out". Work-Out was a series of thousands of "town meetings for GE employees to voice their issues, problems and suggestions. After hearing the employees' comments, the managers of the meetings had to follow a rule; they had to come back in the room within two days and say yes or no, right on the spot, for seventy-five percent of the total issues raised.

Describing these meetings Jack Welch said that they "broke the barrier of people really understanding that, in fact, people's ideas count. That was a major, major breakthrough."

Marion Laboratories Problem Solving Process

Following the policies of the Watson Sr. and Watson Jr. at IBM, Ewing Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories (a pharmaceutical company), instituted a similar policy. He called it the Marion Problem Solving Process. Through this process, any employee had the right to take any problem to human resources or "up" the line from their boss, all the way to the CEO, if they were not satisfied that the problem was solved.

Ewing Kauffman didn't always say yes to the requests of employees of course. But he felt that they had a right to voice their issues and be heard. If they, in the end, were not satisfied, at the least they knew that they could voice a concern, be listen to, and if the answer to a request was no, at least they got an explanation as to why.

A number of years ago, Ed Connolly was working as the manager of human resources at Marion. An employee using the Problem Solving Process came to him saying his boss, a vice-president, would not support the process or even discuss the problem. Ed went and discussed the situation with the vice-president, someone at the time who was several levels "over" him in the chain of command. The vice-president insisted that the policy didn't apply to him or his people, that his employees should do what he told them to do. Ed said, "Are you sure?" The man said, "Yes".

Ed then scheduled a meeting between the vice-president and Ewing Kauffman, the CEO. Mr Kauffman told the vice-president that, "I would like you to know that when you are talking to Ed Connolly, it is same as talking with me."

Mr Kauffman asked the vice-president if indeed he refused to support the Problem Solving Process and give his associates the right to question and even appeal his decisions. The vice-president confirmed that that was true.

After a long pause, Mr Kauffman told him to think about his position on that policy for a couple of days. He then said that if, upon reflecting, he still felt that way, then he and others in the company would do their best to help find him a job in another company where he could better fit in.

He left the company shortly after that meeting.

I believe an organisation's real values are those whose implementation they are willing to enforce. In this case, Marion Laboratories had committed to treating every associate (all full-time employees were associates) with respect and dignity.

Other organisations have implemented similar methods for giving employees a voice. FedEx, the package delivering company, has what they call FedEx TV. This program has executives presenting important news every workday morning. They often have a call-in portion to the show where any employee can anonymously raise any problem in front of the whole company. Many universities have an ombudsman that any student or employee can go to, to voice a concern or problem and get heard.

Levels of Responsibility for Creating
Open and Honest Communication

VBL is not a leadership development system that assumes people need to be in positions of authority to be a leader. That is not the case. My assumption in writing and developing VBL is that any person can be a leader and that he or she has a significant, unique contribution to make to improve the organisation.

Do what YOU can uniquely do!

This assumption does not deny the realities of authority in an organisation. The more positional authority someone has, the more responsibility they have to wield that authority with care and wisdom.

There are two levels of responsibility for bringing about open and honest communication.

The Individual Level Of Responsibility

As an individual, the primary responsibility to yourself and the organisation is to activate enough self-respect, courage and inner wisdom to speak out about what is important to you, and to do so without destructive behavior that makes victims of you and others. (That means communicating in a direct, straightforward way without blaming, avoiding, whining, labeling negatively or sarcasm.) Therefore, your individual responsibility means speaking out about both what you want and what you don't want. The effect of this, ideally, is to make sure your values, your issues, and your contributions, are heard. This applies to each person in the organisation.

The Organizational Level Of Responsibility

The organisational level of responsibility is altogether different than the individual level. It is the organisations responsibility to bring about a culture of safety and trust within which individuals are not punished and are rewarded for speaking out - especially when they are voicing problems they encounter.

People who possess positional authority, board members, executives and managers, for example, have a special responsibility to initiate and use processes of organisational learning to bring about such a culture of safety and trust. That is because they have the power to do so.

What are organisational learning processes?

They are forums and policies that encourage safety and trust in the organisation. Forums include the meetings Jack Welch holds in General Electric to let people speak out and get heard. Policies include the problem solving and open door policies of Marion Laboratories and IBM. (I will elaborate more on various organisational learning processes in a future column.)

It is incumbent on any manager, executive or board member to make sure these or other forums and policies are in place to give each person a voice, for that is fundamental to respecting each person. And what better way to assure that patients and clients receive respect from the organisation than by giving respect to each person within the organisation?

Each Organisation Needs To Find Its Own Methods

It is up to each organisation to find its own solutions to the problem of closed feedback loops. Creating a culture of open and honest communication is not easy and it takes a lot of work, much courage, and a sustained commitment on everyone's part.

At the individual level, for open and honest communication to happen, it's crucial to have the courage and self-respect to do Requesting, and the wisdom to do so productively. That is, to say what you experience about a problem and ask for what you want, in such a way that people want to listen.

At the organisational level it is crucial for managers to create an atmosphere of listening and responding as well as safety and support, for the feedback that people offer.

I hope you will take the steps you can take to enhance the flow of information in the organisation to solve problems, achieve goals and fulfill values. You'll benefit and so will those with whom you work. The goal of a healthy organisation, like that of a healthy family is challenging and too often elusive. Yet, this goal is ultimately rewarding.

My teacher, Virginia Satir, died of cancer, at age seventy-six in 1987. I told her shortly before she died that I would do my best to pass on her lessons for happiness and health to anyone who would read or listen. Thanks for your attention to these ideas. So go out and say what you experience and ask for what you want! Your happiness and health, and that of NMHS, are at stake.

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