In 2024, roughly four years after the COVID pandemic upended the world of work, the relationship between employees and employers is heading into a new phase. According to a study by Gallup, global employee stress remains at a record high, but, on a more positive note, engagement is slowly recovering. Effective communication both up and down the organizational ladder is more critical than ever.

Rupal Patel, ex-CIA officer and CEO of Entreprenora
Rupal Patel, ex-CIA officer and CEO of Entreprenora. Entreprenora

Serial entrepreneur and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Rupal Patel is no stranger to having challenging conversations in high-pressure situations. In her CIA career, Patel had to have difficult conversations with some of the highest-ranking civilian and military officials of the US and its allies. She brings these unique insights into the intricacies of workplace communication in her work as an international speaker and organizational strategist.

After the turmoil of the past few years, it's obvious leaders need to regain the trust of their employees, with only 23% of US employees saying they strongly trust their organization's leadership. Patel says that trust issues go both ways, with many business leaders reluctant to trust their employees to work in a hybrid or remote setup. Some bosses have even issued ultimatums to their employees.

To resolve these impasses, both employers and employees need to find common ground, engage in clear and respectful communication, and establish trust in both directions.

"Communication is a two-way street, and it's not just bosses talking to employees. Team members also need to think about how they can develop trust with their leadership through proper communication, and how all parties can have tough conversations more thoughtfully," Patel says. "This isn't something that happens in an instant, but communication can improve gradually if both sides invest in developing the relationship. In 2024, companies will have to learn how to navigate internal communication struggles to regain the trust of their workforce, so they can meet the challenges of the year ahead."

Patel shares three steps for how to have tough conversations.

The first one is to develop credibility in the eyes of the person you are speaking to. For example, when speaking to someone in a higher position, such as when Patel conducted briefings for generals and presidents, it's important to demonstrate your competence and track record. This comes not only from your performance at work but in showing integrity and adhering to basic office etiquette, as well as making an effort to understand how that person best receives information.

"Not every boss is going to respond to the same information in the same way, and this is where empathy comes in," Patel says. "Try to understand how they receive information and what kind of information is important to them. Is it qualitative or quantitative? Do they want statistics or do they want graphics? You have to do your research about them, and then explore and experiment until you find a personalized approach."

Credibility is also extremely important for leaders when communicating with their team members. They can gain the trust of their team by following through with their promises, making sure they are being as transparent as possible about what's happening in the organization, and are neither sugar-coating nor being overly harsh with their words.

"As a leader, you need to evaluate yourself. Are you someone who hoards all the glory but is last to take responsibility? Or are you someone who steps up to the plate and bats for your team? Are you the type of leader who only has conversations when things are going wrong? Or are you interested in having a genuine relationship with them by investing the time, effort, and energy to get to know them, and to help them develop? Making a genuine effort always goes a long way," Patel says.

Once credibility and trust have been established, the next step is to share the message. Both parties should be able to communicate clearly and provide concrete evidence. They should also be prepared for a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, which can be difficult, especially when people are averse to confrontation. However, because credibility has been established, the other party should now be more likely to listen.

The final step is to make room for co-creating potential solutions moving forward and being willing to explore unconventional ideas. According to Patel, it's the first and final steps that are the hardest because they require time and effort, which are often in short supply in fast-paced environments.

To ensure that tough conversations are happening before there is a crisis point, organizations need to embed mechanisms for regular informal communication between leaders and their teams. "Conversations with employees shouldn't only occur when there is a problem, so by implementing a predictable cadence of communication where there are multiple regular touchpoints for dialogue, leaders can build trust, sustain employee engagement, and manage expectations and emotions," Patel shares.

"These are among the many lessons I learned in my experience as a young civilian woman operating in an active war zone, briefing generals, ambassadors, and decision-makers at the highest levels and in various high-pressure environments at the CIA," Patel says. "Today, I apply these principles in a corporate context through my talent and leadership development programs."