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The Importance of Open Communication: Speak Up at Work Before Your Ship Sails!

While doing business research two years ago in Stockholm, Sweden, I dropped by the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a warship that sank in the Stockholm harbor in 1628 while on her maiden voyage. Several dozen people drowned. The captain was just one of many people who knew the ship was not seaworthy and that it would most certainly sink because of its flawed design. But out of fear of speaking up, no one said anything to the king of Sweden, who had approved the design and was anxious to see it set sail for battle.    

One of oh-so-many phrases that should be consigned to the trash heap of obsolete buzzwords is “speaking truth to power.” Not that this isn’t a good idea, in fact it’s one of the keys to keeping your ship afloat. But if it needs

A Harvard business school and Penn State study found that there is a substantial amount of fear of speaking up in most workplaces. This fear not only creates stress and anxiety, it also results in innovative ideas being dog laughing at a jokemissed out on, while potentially costly or even dangerous ideas (see sinking ship above) move ahead because no one has the courage to speak up…or out…or down…or sideways.

This is a workplace culture issue, and research suggests that workplaces with more humor, especially where leaders practice self-deprecating humor, are more likely to foster an environment of mutual trust and openness. Here are more few suggestions that might float your boat:

1. Talk about it! If it is an elephant in your meeting room, then talk openly about why it’s perceived to be an issue and what needs to be done to address it. If you’re a leader, think about what behaviors might be seen as inhibiting openness; if you’re an employee challenge your own assumptions and fears about what might be holding your communication back.

2. It’s hard to get open communication up unless there’s open and honest communication down. The more leaders communicate in an authentic and open manner, the more comfortable everyone will feel speaking out.

3.Celebrate and reward openness. Biogen Idec Canada hands out a “Bull by the Horns” award to an employee who speaks out and challenges assumptions (only employees get a say in who wins).

4. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden might have benefited from the satirical voice of a court jester or Jon Stewart: Listen carefully for the truths that are sometimes only expressed through humor.

Michael Kerr. Michael is a Hall of Fame speaker who is known as one of North America’s leading authorities on creating a more inspiring workplace culture.  For inspiring ideas sign up for his weekly e-zine, Inspiring Workplaces – Humor at Work.


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