Part 2. What facilitates open and honest dialogue in the workplace?

In my first blog about difficult conversations at work, I shared some insights from my doctoral research at the University of Hertfordshire investigating difficult conversations at work.  

This included: 

  • Findings from interviews with people who have had difficult conversations at work. 
  • My own personal experiences of difficult conversations.  
  • Lessons from my MSc research exploring the experiences of cancer patients who needed to self-disclose about their illness at work.  

It was a very brief snapshot of some of the findings from my research to date but ended with some important follow-up questions. One of which was: how can we encourage or facilitate open and honest communication in the workplace  

Like many PhD researchers, my chosen topic is close to my heart. With my own chronic heath to manage, I’ve needed to have difficult conversations about it at work. A few have stood out for me and made the difference in how confident I have felt in having an open and honest conversation about a difficult topic.  

Firstly, relationships matter. It is much easier to have an open and honest conversation when you have built a strong relationship with another person. As a very private person, in order for me to share something so personal, I need to feel like I have a connection with the person I am talking to. Most importantly, I need to feel safe with that person and know that they will handle my issues with sensitivity and genuine care and compassion. 

It is often easier to speak with people who have a shared experience of the issue at hand, whilst this is not always necessary, it is somewhat comforting to know the person you are speaking with has an insight into what you may be experiencing and how it may be impacting you. Empathy is a very powerful tool in the pursuit of open and honest dialogue. We may never truly understand another person’s truths or internal experiences as we are not them.  However, by demonstrating empathy we can make people feel seen and heard and this can have an incredible impact for a person who may be struggling.  

Trust and mutual respect are paramount. Without these things, it becomes very difficult to open up to others and reveal the things that scare us most or make us vulnerable and for true transparency, vulnerability is often a necessity.  

I am lucky that in recent years I have worked with people with whom I have built a rapport, whom I trust, and respect, both here at Zest and at the University of Hertfordshire. This has been a game changer for me in terms of being able to openly discuss my health challenges and how they impact me both personally and at work. But this hasn’t always been the case. In a previous role, and organisation I had a very different experience of how my health issues were managed and understood, and this had a very negative impact on my well-being, my performance, my productivity and my overall engagement with the organisation itself and the work that I did.  

So, what was different about the organisation I used to work for and the organisations I work with now? 

Here at Zest Psychology, I feel psychologically safe. 

Psychological safety means:  

“Feeling safe to take interpersonal risks, to speak up, to disagree openly, to surface concerns without fear of negative repercussions or pressure to sugar-coat bad news” Edmondson (1999).  

In a psychologically safe environment, it is ok to admit mistakes, to be vulnerable and to speak the truth all without fear of judgement and negative consequences.  

I believe that psychological safety at work plays a vital role in how confident we are, and how prepared we feel to engage in difficult conversations. In my last blog, fear of repercussions and negative consequences was highlighted as one reason for avoidance of difficult conversations.  

If we create an environment that is psychologically safe, where people do not fear judgment or poor outcomes, will we be more ‘ready’ to tackle challenging conversations? Will we get better at having open and honest dialogue with our colleagues? I believe so.  I will be exploring the relationship between psychological safety and readiness to have difficult conversations at work in my next research PhD study to see if this is indeed the case.  

Closely aligned with psychological safety is an organisation’s culture and values. Here at Zest, we have worked hard to develop a solid framework for our ways of working as a team and an organisation and once again this plays a significant part in my ability to be able to communicate with my manager openly and honestly about my health and my needs.  

We have a set of guiding principles that we all endeavour to embed into the work that we do and our relationships with one another at work. These are based around respect, integrity, competence, and responsibility and incorporate things like mutual support, fostering transparency, personal accountability, effective communication and more…. We take time as a team to share openly our challenges (both at work and outside of work) without judgement, but we also reflect on our successes and celebrate our achievements together. We have a very diverse team, who are accepting and supportive of one another.  

The founder of Zest, Dr Anna Kane, has worked hard to foster a safe and collaborative environment where we are all equally valued and appreciated for what we bring to our work and an environment where we are encouraged to be our full authentic selves. This is so important for facilitating open and honest dialogue in the workplace and an example of how organisational culture and values contributes to how confidently individuals can engage in difficult conversations at work.  

I believe that the environment we work in and the culture we co-create, if positive can facilitate the building blocks for the relational and personal factors we need to improve our readiness to tackle difficult conversations at work.  

Keep an eye out for my next blog where I will talk more about what I have discovered about difficult conversations at work through my PhD research where I will be exploring difficult conversations about personal matters in more detail.  

Author: Rachel Smith (GMBPsS)  

Psychologist at Zest Psychology / PhD student at the University of Hertfordshire 

(MSc Occupational Psychology, BSc (Hons) Psychology) 

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