Ask five people what they associate with ‘a culture of openness’, and you may well get five quite different responses. For example:
- Where you receive information timely, and through the appropriate channels
- A culture where people can speak up
- An environment where new ideas are appreciated, encouraged even
- With views of employees actively invited
- Where there is a sense of informality, with minimal barriers between functions, or - importantly! - between hierarchies
Of course, in a true culture of openness, all of the above apply. Yet, have a look at your own organisation, and ask yourself: if each of the above was worth 20 points, what would your organisation score? My guess is very few of you will get to the full 100, or 80 even. 60 maybe? Just 40? Even less than that? Oh dear!
And yet, the evidence that openness is key to success is overwhelming. And not just in the workplace; in your day to day interaction with friends and family, in your role as a Treasurer of the local Amateur Dramatics Society, or in virtually any scenario you can think of, a culture of openness is essential for things to 'work'. Well, unless you are employed by MI5 maybe…
In a different context, just look at the level of nations: take any measure focusing on democracy and freedom of speech (check for example http://democracyranking.org/wordpress/?page_id=57 or http://www.freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-worldand what will undoubtedly strike you is the overwhelming correlation between levels of democracy and freedom of speech on one hand, and wellbeing and economic prosperity on the other. If you are reading this Messrs Putin, Jinping, Il-Sung, Mugabe, and other assorted autocrats, please take note!
Putting this in a corporate environment, the reasons for a culture of true openness are manifold: would your organisation be a frontrunner in Innovation if people didn’t feel they could share their ideas? Would fraud have a real chance in an environment where people trust they can report suspicious goings-on without being worried it will come back to bite them? Would you really be able to say ‘Customer is King’ if your staff cannot suggest changes to how you operate based on their interactions with these very customers? Could you have a real Performance Culture if your employees feel somehow restricted in feeding back on the performance of colleagues? And last but not least: would they be genuinely engaged if they feel they operate in a corporate straightjacket? Apologies for asking so many rhetorical questions.
Sadly, much of the above will be all too familiar to many. But because it is usually well hidden from view to the outside world, it often requires some sort of scandal, or a major drop in market share, for the proverbial corporate boat to be rocked to such an extent that changes become unavoidable. Sadly, for some this means it is too late. Examples aplenty. In the UK for example, just look at that institution many of us only recently held up as a bastion 'banking with a difference': the Cooperative Bank. Some headlines suggested it was brought down by one individual. I would argue this individual would have been stopped in his tracks a long time ago had he operated in a true culture of openness.
Equally, we can look at companies that lost their competitive edge, and ask ourselves why this might have happened? What stopped them from being the company everyone looked up to? Was it an inability to challenge ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? A culture where certain ‘unspoken laws’ meant people didn’t question certain decisions? These are just two recognisable scenarios where the inability for people to speak up / challenge cost their employers dearly.
Summarising, allow me to stipulate that openness is not synonymous with anarchy, and that it has very little to do with inefficient decision-making (even though some people will be quick to argue as such). No, a culture of openness is like brushing your teeth; you may believe you can do without it. But then one day sooner or later, the rot is bound to kick in!
Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Think the Unthinkable