Communicate or Fail may sound a little extreme. It’s not. Organisations and individuals can succeed or fail on the effectiveness of their communications. Communicate or Fail is a two-part post focussing on communications at an organisational level and on a personal level. Part 1 will focus on organisational communication.
Good organisational communication can help an organisation increase market share and competitiveness, improve customer service and satisfaction, and keep employees motivated and engaged. Poor or no communication, on the other hand, can be extremely destructive.
The communication landscape is more complex than ever before. We have a myriad of different channels at our disposal; audiences are more selective in how they use and react to these channels, and it is almost impossible to quantify the number of messages that compete for the attention of those audiences.
People learn and process information in many different ways. Research tells us that we retain 10% of what we read; 20% of what we hear; 30% of what we see; 50% of what we see and hear; 70% of what we discuss; 80% of what we experience; and 95% of what we share and communicate to others. On this basis, sending an email to engage an audience is probably not going to set the world on fire in its own right!
In considering organisational communication it is important to distinguish between formal and informal communication. The most common form of formal communication within an organisation is communication downward (vertically) through the hierarchical structure of the organisation arising from top management level.
Many organisations attempt to facilitate upward communication within organisations through measures such as staff surveys and suggestion schemes. Staff surveys are often used to help the organisation identify actions that will improve performance. But this in itself often presents its own potential problems and leads to misleading information being supplied to management.
By managing the proper integration across this mix of activities, a communicating organisation ensures that information not only flows up and down within the organisation but also flows across functional teams and between itself and external stakeholders, including its customers and suppliers.
So what forms of communication should you be thinking about for your internal communications?
Key Themes for Effective Internal Communication
1. A Shared Vision
If your people don’t understand where they’re going, why they’re going there and what happens for them on the journey and more importantly when they get there – guess what, you don’t have motivated, engaged and passionate employees. If they don’t care where they’re going, you’ve got a much bigger problem!
Communicating the vision of an organisation, a team or a new direction is an opportunity to invigorate the work force, explain the challenges ahead, and tell your story. It is an opportunity lost if it does not enroll the workforce in a call to action and stir people’s passions. So many times in my career, have I seen company vision statements that have been developed by senior managers or an agency and delivered via posters and mouse mats, and then management wonder why their people don’t immediately change their behaviours and get behind it?
Ideally you should work with your people to shape your vision. If your organisation is small enough, use everyone and get their input. If you work in a larger business use a good cross-section of people from all levels and departments. Where possible use your ‘rising stars’ that are passionate about, not only the organisation, but also driving change and influencing others.
I can thoroughly recommend Full Steam Ahead by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Lyn Stoner if you want to learn more around creating a shared vision for your business.
2. Senior Leadership Involvement
Visible buy‐in and engagement at the top is essential. Ensure that the head of your organisation is fully briefed on internal communications, has an opportunity to shape the strategy and is fully involved in key internal communications. This is important not only as the CEO is a key communications channel, but also because his or her behaviour will help set expectations for transparency and authenticity. Consider opportunities to demonstrate a real commitment to information sharing, in order to illustrate that information hoarding is not acceptable within your organisation’s performance or culture.
It’s also important that the wider senior leadership team are bought into whatever you are communicating. At best they won’t be reinforcing the messages you are trying to get across. At worst, they could be sabotaging your efforts.
3. Understand Your Audience
Understanding your audience is crucial to building a successful communications plan; the bigger the message and impact on the organisation, the more important the analysis.
Before you communicate with your people, there is some basic information you need to discover about them. Ask them how they feel about the current level of internal communication. Discern whether they feel informed about changes, if they feel comfortable sharing their opinions, and how they would like to see communication improve.
Ask the hard questions. See if they would be willing to share specific examples of when they felt out of the loop or ignored. Try not to be defensive when they share; listen with an open mind.
Identify how employees like to receive information: email, newsletter, face-to-face, or other options. Ask if the method depends on what information is shared. For example, a weekly announcement can be communicated via email, but a major staff change needs to be shared in person.
4. Employee Engagement
There is nothing worse than being preached to or what I call communicating ‘at’. Your people will not get behind this kind of communication. Make sure that communication is two-way and you build in mechanisms to capture feedback, tweak your messages to your audience and keep reinforcing your message. Marketers often get bored if they have to do a ‘campaign’ more than once or twice. The rule of 7 is a traditional marketing practice that suggests people must see a marketing message 7 times before they take action. When communicating messages, whether to internal or external customers, the concepts remain the same. Think of on-going communication with your teams; communicate it often and through various delivery methods.
What’s In It for Me? Employees will internalise any message communicated. How will this affect me? What does this mean to me? Will it make my job harder? These questions are natural. The more relevant our messaging, the more our employee will be comfortable with the message.
Paint a picture of what this may look like: use examples representative of your audience. This kind of communication engages and excites employees, promotes teamwork and aligns everyone toward achieving company goals.
5. Line Manager Reinforcement
It’s no secret that the relationship between a line manager/team leader and their team has the most direct impact on engagement. Focus on the behaviour change and require managers to report results on actions they’ve taken to impact engagement in their teams. This should be weighted as an indication of performance when someone manages others directly.
Regular team briefings with managers can improve relationships and help your people feel involved and informed about developments that affect them. Cascade team briefings can quickly disseminate key messages throughout the organisation. This method is also very effective at quashing grapevine rumours.
The team environment means that no one is overlooked and it reinforces group motivation. Team briefings should not replace regular team meetings with the staff’s line manager – which is the most popular form of communication – but the brief can be given at the start of the team meeting.
A system for feeding back and responding to questions from staff should also be built in to the process. You need to monitor the system regularly to ensure that it is operating effectively across the organisation.
6. Multi-channel Communication Tools
- Face to Face Communication – Wherever possible and practical, employee communication should take place face‐to‐face. In‐person exchanges are the most effective and trusted forms of internal communication. What’s more, that direct conversation can also unravel otherwise effective communications activities such as newsletters and intranet content if the spokesperson fails to establish trust or authenticity. Design communication strategies and tactics around meaningful opportunities for face‐to‐face exchange. If distance is a challenge, explore the use of web conferences as a means of bridging that geographical gap rather than relying on the passive and cold medium of email.
- ‘Live Meetings’ – with the advent of applications like Microsoft Teams you can reach large numbers of people quickly, effectively and across the globe with multimedia interactive broadcasts to get your message across. These meetings can be extremely interactive if planned well and more personal than email or a conference call.
- Enterprise Social Media – It’s no secret that social media is transforming the way people communicate in the workplace. As more and more companies are realising the value of engaging their employees online, social media is quickly becoming a preferred way of increasing knowledge sharing, encouraging teamwork and collaboration and adding value to the employee experience. To this effect, many businesses and organisations are using social media tools, like forums, blogs and social networks, to enable their staff and stakeholders to converse, collaborate and connect – Chatter via Salesforce.com and Yammer being two fast-growing enterprise-wide examples.Using social media as part of your internal communications plan has a number of benefits. For one, companies are able to have real-time, authentic conversations with employees. Plus the very nature of social media means that anyone can participate in discussions, allowing communication to flow from the top down, bottom up, and even from side to side. If you are part of a national or global company it also means you can connect with people all over the world on a more involved level than just email and phone.
- Blogging – Blogs are a better communication tool when you want to get information out to people, and want to enable feedback, but keep the original text intact. Internal blogging is frequently used to communicate activities like product development, support issues, product releases, planning events and conferences, providing informal updates on miscellaneous issues. Blogs usually encourage readers to comment, provide feedback open dialogue and exchange ideas in an informal context.
- Intranet – Unless heavily adopted and promoted in your organisation, intranets are not the best place to ‘engage’ employees. They’re great to store information, get someone’s mobile number, read policies, log a fault on your PC and catch up on things when you have time. They’re not great by themselves to enrol your people in your message!
- Email – Email is a good system for keeping track of conversations and saves on time and energy. You can email large groups of people and ensure that they were aware of the discussion because there is a common expectation of reading emails regularly. However emails are impersonal if used to large groups, prone to all types of mistakes and often ignored if used regularly.
7. Continuously Measure Effectiveness
Measurement is always an important part of any form of communication strategy, but it is especially relevant in the case of employee communication. Setting up clear indicators of performance will be vital in calibrating the strategy and tactics with appropriate precision. Internal communication may be deployed to track against outcomes such as morale, retention, recruitment, productivity, job satisfaction and/or employee safety. Being clear about “what success looks like,” and establishing internal alignment around that end state is instrumental to having high impact employee communication programs that deliver results.
Would love to get your feedback on this post. I know I’m only scratching the surface of this topic. Part two of Communicate or Fail here