Communication climate

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

Do you remember the weather this past Labor Day in Milwaukee? It was overcast for most of the day, with a slow but steady rain. We live on a lake in Waukesha County, and lake traffic was all but nil.

You could say it was a depressing day. Not much to smile about. Contrast this “climate,” however, with the weekend climate that preceded it: bright, sunny, puffy popcorn clouds with temps in the high 70s. A perfect grand finale summer display!

Believe it or not, our businesses have climates as well. They can be inclement, just like the weather, or they can be positive, stimulating and refreshing. Obviously, the former is depressing and the latter is enlightening. A bad climate leads to lower employee productivity and overall dissatisfaction, and a good climate results in a more effective organization.

A number of years ago, I spearheaded a project for the International Communication Association to develop a survey to measure “communication climate.” The object was to see if we could demonstrate that companies with good or great communication climates performed better than companies with poor ones.

Today, the notion of a positive communication climate is synonymous with the notion of a well-managed organization, whether large or small. TEC (The Executive Committee) CEOs tell us that it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes the same amount of effort as it does to achieve ISO status or a total quality business environment.

What is communication climate? Actually, it is an interactive collection of several communication concepts. Let’s examine five of them that clearly hold the major sources of influence over communication climate:


Credibility is composed of the amount of knowledge or expertise a source has, the consistency with which this knowledge is applied and its perceived overall reliability.  Credibility is a “top-down” concept. It begins with the CEO and permeates every management level of the business. If employees think that management lacks credibility, it hurts the firm’s communication climate.


Trust is a close cousin of credibility. In fact, it can be said that perceived management credibility and trust are the two major components of overall communication climate. If you don’t trust the source of information you receive, then whether the information is accurate or not, your response to it will be the same: suspicious. A poor communication climate is almost always identified with lack of top management trust among employees.


While credibility and trust are perceived components of communication climate, openness or candor is a strictly behavioral statement. If people are reluctant to disclose their feelings or opinions for fear of retaliation or because they believe someone will betray their confidence, then the flow of important information is constrained. It’s called the unhealthy “zipped lips” syndrome.


Even in companies with exemplary communication climates, the rumor mill is active.  But in companies with healthy climates, rumors tend to be innocuous and mundane. In companies with poor communication climates, rumors tend to be vindictive and exaggerated or misrepresentations of the truth. More often than not, they tend to reinforce negative beliefs about management.

Rule assertiveness

Interestingly, companies that have and enforce a plethora of rules regarding employment guidelines tend to have poor communication climates. Rules tend to dehumanize the workplace. They de-emphasize creativity and individuality. They frustrate the work of high performers. They reinforce inflexibility and penalize flexibility. The key point here is rule moderation. There are rules and there are rules. Firms with strong communication climates have rules, but they don’t obsess about enforcing them.

Want to take a quick assessment of your firm’s communication climate? Have your employees rate each of the following questions on a scale of 1 to 10, in which 1 means “not at all” and 10 means “almost always”:

1. To what extent do you think what management has to say is believable?

2. To what extent is management a trustworthy source of important information?

3. To what extent do you feel comfortable sharing your true feelings and opinions at work?

4. To what extent does management place a high priority on good communication practices in your company?

5. To what extent do you believe the grapevine should be ignored for important company information?

Companies with excellent communication climates will receive average total scores on these five questions of 40 or better. If scores are 25 or under, you need to work on improving your communication climate.

How do you improve a less-than-satisfactory communication climate? Should you bother? The answer to the second question is easier than the answer to the first.  Communication climate is a proven competitive differentiator for every business. The reasons should be obvious. Improving climate is a long-term commitment. You must commit to the following:

• Develop a communication climate plan that includes any manager in a supervisory position.

• Focus on the five components discussed above.

• Share the plan with all employees and get their input.

• Make demonstrative changes in your communication practices to show your sincerity.

• Repeat the survey in six months and report the results to all employees.

• Make the plan a component of your annual business plan.

Credibility, trust, openness, sensible rules – makes sense, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what you want in your business as customary and standard? I think so.

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340. 


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