Almost everything we do in our professional lives relies on communication. If you work with a team, you have to communicate to collaborate. Communication is essential even if you are not part of a team but report to a manager at any level. And if you are a freelancer working alone, communication with your clients and potentially your colleagues is essential to running your business.
At the same time, most people are frustrated with the workplace communication they are part of. Survey after survey shows just how much employees and managers alike see communication as an obstacle instead of an essential tool. No one imagines we can achieve our goals without communicating, but we know ineffective communication sets us back. For the most part, how we communicate in the workplace negatively impacts our productivity and efficiency. In recent years, it has been widely accepted that ineffective communication also affects motivation and engagement in the workplace.
What we tend to forget, though, is that since human beings are wired to communicate and socialize, there is also a strong relationship between communication and trust. When we fail to communicate, we trust the people we communicate with less. We trust the organization less. And this, in turn, impacts our ability to collaborate, co-create, and achieve our targets.
No organization can operate for long without trust between employees and managers and between teammates.
In a recent Forbes article, it has been revealed that 45% of people feel poor communication is reducing trust both in leadership and in their team. For remote workers, this number is even higher, but even for on-site workers, it is around 40% on average.
Take a moment to contemplate that: almost half of your workers, colleagues, and even your managers are not trusting you and their teammates, assuming they experience ineffective communication. It is a shocking number, considering how widespread the problem of poor communication is in organizations and considering how vital trust is to any organization. Without trust, leadership is impossible; without trust, there is no deep collaboration.
Nobody means to create distrust when they absentmindedly run an ineffective meeting; no one thinks sending an incomprehensible email will create a trust issue. Trust is built over time, and in the context of ineffective communication, it takes time to destroy. This is why this problem is difficult to spot and resolve before it gets out of hand. But trust is nevertheless the oxygen of the organization. When it is there, we barely notice it; when the trust levels start to come down, we are at risk of suffocation.
The good news is that we can build and regain trust using nothing more than good, effective communication. When we communicate intentfully, not just to be productive but also to build trust, it is pretty easy to do so. Like many other issues, awareness is a significant part of the solution.
We can do what we are told, assuming the instructions are clear enough. But following orders does not build trust; knowing where we are heading does.
To build and maintain trust, we must communicate our mission and direction. Many organizations have a Mission Statement. It is an essential mechanism for creating alignment and increasing motivation. Still, in most cases, it is just too high-level or abstract to help us understand why we are doing something concrete now. When we enter a meeting not knowing why we are having it, or when we leave a meeting not knowing why the decided action is essential, we are left with no option but to follow mindlessly.
The solution is ensuring every communication we have is related to an overarching, predefined mission — more concrete and tangible than the long-term organizational mission. When we start a meeting or an email with how it is connected to some predefined target, everyone knows where we are heading collectively. It makes communication more effective, but no less important, it increases trust: we all know we are doing this to achieve that.
Stating the mission explicitly does not mean everyone automatically accepts it, though. When you define and include the mission as part of what you communicate, others gain the opportunity to challenge it: is this the right mission? This is an opportunity to increase trust even further: the team doesn’t only know where it is going but can also affect it.
Transparency does not mean everyone knows everything at any given point in time. Transparency means everyone has access to what they need to know to do their best work.
It starts with communicating the mission. Knowing where we are heading is crucial for optimizing things along the way. But it doesn’t stop there. The details are often just as important. When our ultimate goal is to co-create, we can’t settle for communicating what we think we must do. We must back it up with the data, the information, and the logic behind it. This approach strengthens the trust in the following steps and enables the team to challenge the decision and propose a different path. It allows them to affect and not just comply.
Transparency is often taken as a standalone attribute. Organizations brag that they are transparent. But the real power of transparency is in being an enabler of dialogue.
Business organizations are rarely democratic. In the business world, there is structure and hierarchy; there are ranks and different levels of accountability. We generally don’t have a vote on decisions, not at the strategic level and not as part of our daily tasks. And yet, there is a massive difference between communicating to instruct people what to do and communicating with co-creation in mind. Transparency is an essential precondition for bidirectional communication. But transparency alone is not enough. Real and deep trust can only grow when the communication is done on equal terms, where both sides can affect and be affected.
In the real world, we must balance the need for a dialogue with the hierarchical nature of the organization. We obviously don’t want endless discussions with an unlimited number of people. A trust-building interaction is, therefore, an interaction that makes persuasion and change of mind a real, tangible option. Your rank is obviously important: you are accountable, and the decision is eventually yours. However, to build trust, you must be genuinely open to other opinions and the possibility that they will affect you. This is not possible without transparency, but when transparency is not accompanied by an honest dialogue, it can just increase frustration and break trust.
To build trust, you should define a shared destination, be transparent as to what decisions are based on, and be open to a dialogue that may result in taking a different path. These are not just practices for enhancing trust. These foundations of effective communication enable you and your team to co-create great things together.