Most of us spend half (or more than half) of our waking hours in the workplace. At work, we communicate with a range of people with different roles, experiences, cultures, perspectives, and power levels. Knowing how to communicate skillfully across such a wide spectrum of colleagues is an essential skill set in the modern workplace.
Workplace communication often involves the delicate intersection of authority, power dynamics, and collaborative teamwork. We often refer to this intersection as “workplace politics,” though these politics have less to do with the White House and more to do with the underlying attitudes that influence how ideas are received and adopted within a workplace.
But what do we mean by authority and power, and how do these relate to collaborative teamwork? While “authority” is the power that comes with a specific role or title, “power dynamics” refers to the ability of one person to influence the behavior and attitudes of others— and how those others respond to the person with influence. The “power” of one individual or team over others sometimes sets up an unhealthy dynamic that can be reinforced through communication styles. Indeed, the quality and tenor of communication may have a negative impact on different individuals and teams— and that, in turn, can affect the entire company’s well-being.
Current news outlets are full of stories detailing how communications between authority figures and workplace subordinates have led to deeply troubling power dynamics. Companies, therefore, need to model and practice ethical communication at both the policy and every-day levels, to maintain healthy workplace politics.
“Ethics” refers to the behavior of people to choose the right or best path, and to make the most correct choice from a variety of choices; this includes how and why they communicate with their colleagues and clients. In the workplace, you will face a variety of ethical choices that can influence how others relate to you and how deeply they value you as a coworker. Your communication, therefore, needs to reflect your ethics.
What does it mean, then, to communicate ethically in the workplace?
Honesty should be the cornerstone of all your workplace communications. Honesty builds trust between you and authority figures, as well as between you and your colleagues and clients. Communication can be both verbal and non-verbal. Your actions are just as important as what you say or write. Honest communication not only builds trust, it also helps you and others identify and work on any fissures that may arise in the intersection between authority, power, and teamwork. Without honesty, communication fails at its core purpose.
When communicating in your workplace, transparency is key. First, you need to be clear in your purpose and message. You also need to be lawful (i.e., you must know the laws and regulations that govern communication in your industry); reveal any research that contributed to the content of your communication; and identify any errors you’ve made. Your willingness to admit when you are wrong not only shows your degree of honesty, it also shows how you and your colleagues can learn from your mistakes.
Respect is essential to ethical workplace communication. This concept should seem self-evident, yet there are many ways in which a lack of understanding can result in workplace communications that lack proper respect. Consider, for instance, whether there are cultural or gender differences and dynamics in your workplace; if there are, you should fashion a communication plan that builds equitable bridges between these differences, rather than relying on outdated hierarchies that stymie communication.
How can you do this? Be a careful listener, especially to those whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from your own. Use affirmation and encouragement to build bridges between communication gaps. Ask polite questions to help Improve your cross-cultural competency, both within your company and outside it. Clue in to personal space, as different cultures have different social norms around personal space. Again, what you do often communicates as much as what you say and write.
Remember that effective, ethical communication is foundational to a healthy work environment, because it is how you represent yourself and your company as a whole. Ethical communication is, therefore, essential to fostering positive, respectful working relationships— both within your workplace, and between your workplace and others.