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Interaction Plan: Encouraging Questions Can Improve Open Communications

Leaders are confident that they are capable, through their actions and attitudes, of creating a healthy work environment. They foster open communication that encourages employees to freely ask questions and discuss any concerns.

True leadership requires open and regular interaction between leaders and employees. Leaders understand that they cannot lead from their office or behind a desk: to get a sense of what is actually happening in their organization, they must be actively involved.

It is important to understand that good leadership doesn't demand leaders directly help employees perform their jobs. Rather, by simply maintaining an active awareness of what is going on in their organization, leaders can anticipate problems and opportunities, and respond accordingly. Furthermore, when leaders communicate and maintain a presence with their employees, they establish great rapport. As a result, employee trust and loyalty deepens and organizational cohesiveness broadens.

Leaders can encourage open communication with their employees by practicing the following techniques.

--Encourage Questions. Leaders work with employees who have various levels of self-confidence and self-esteem. They must encourage everyone to regularly ask questions. This kind of interaction makes employees more comfortable with the concept of speaking up, and it also gives them confidence to approach the leader without hesitation or procrastination when the need arises.

Besides vocally encouraging employees, leaders must also support their people with actions. Specifically, leaders should be open and receptive when approached with a question, no matter how trivial the subject. Leaders who simply brush-off the questioner openly convey that questions are not welcome or there is no time to discuss them. Consequently, they undermine the process of open communication.

--Look for Opportunities to Ask Questions. Leaders must not passively wait for their employees to come to them with questions. The nature of leadership demands being out among employees, asking questions and soliciting input. In this fashion, leaders can communicate their interests to each employee while keeping tabs on the activities and direction of the organization. Thus, they can anticipate and handle an issue before it explodes into a major problem.

Moreover, when leaders actively solicit questions and answers, they communicate care and concern for their employees and the entire organization.

--Ask 'Personally.' In the age of instant electronic communication, it is important for leaders to ask questions in person. Email doesn't communicate the tone and nonverbal cues that people often require to fully understand a question. Additionally, face-to-face questions give leaders the opportunity to clearly explain their intentions and get a more comprehensive answer.

While email may be efficient, leaders should understand that not all employees are good writers and, therefore, some may not have the ability to communicate adequately in this medium. Many employees who are uncomfortable with email might not even attempt to reply unless forced to; in which case, responses will tend to be short and/or incomplete.

--Respect the Questioner. In the daily workplace routine, it is not uncommon for a leader to hear a range of questions, from trivial to extremely important. In an open communication environment, leaders know they must treat every question and questioner with respect, even if the topic is trivial or lacks urgency. Rather than embarrass or alienate the questioner, good leaders validate the specific question and thank the employee for bringing it to their attention.

--Listen Actively. When approached with a question, leaders know that it is important to give the employee their undivided attention. However, if the leader's attention is necessitated elsewhere, they should ask the employee if the question could be discussed later, at a specific time convenient for both. The time selected must be sufficient for a full discussion, without any urgency to hurry the process along. Once the appointment is set, leaders make a point to keep it.

Again, effective leaders strive to always encourage open communication through their actions and receptivity to questions. However, circumstances and the workplace environment may not always make this practical. In such cases, rather than be short and appear to disregard the employee's question, leaders need to explain that the timing is simply not right and that they would like to talk when they can provide the needed time and attention both the employee and the question deserves.

When finally discussing a question in-depth, leaders should paraphrase parts of the question or the entire question back to the employee to help clarify and understand the concerns being raised.

--Be Cooperative. In most workplace environments, leaders are dealing with daily problems and issues that produce varying degrees of stress. Under these circumstances, it is easy for any individual to appear defensive or adversarial when asked a question, especially an unexpected one.

Effective leaders, however, will maintain a consistent attitude and posture that fosters a cooperative spirit within their organizational unit. They keep a friendly and open demeanor with their employees by paying attention to their own moods, habits, attitudes, body language, and tone of voice.

--Take Responsibility, But Don't Solve Every Problem. All people in every organization have limits and responsibilities. When approached with questions, a leader should not respond by doing the employee's work for them. But there are times when the leader is responsible for developing a solution. The key is to understand the appropriate response for the particular question.

Leaders need to set firm and fair limits on what they are willing and able to do so that employees don't place unreasonable demands on their time and At the same time, it is unrealistic for leaders to expect their employees to solve every problem without guidance. Generally, the appropriate course of action is somewhere in the middle, where the employee and the leader brainstorm to arrive at an acceptable solution.

--Follow Up. Open communication demands that leaders follow up on their responses to employee questions by making sure the solution is understood, acceptable, and implemented. Obviously, the degree of follow-up needs to be proportionate to the question's impact and importance. That is, small problems probably only need a simple follow-up question to make sure that things are going alright, while bigger problems could necessitate a series of subsequent meetings.

Follow-up keeps communication with employees open because it often triggers additional questions, input, and feedback. In this way, the communication process becomes a continuous, effective loop.


Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. is author of "Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It" and "What You Can Learn From It." Contact timothy.bednarz@majorium.com or 715-342-1018

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