Having trouble communicating? Forget the hype and just talk

Employees are sick of being snowed. They are cynical, skeptical and down right angry about the gyrations their companies go through in the name of "good communication."

My electronic mail bag is stuffed with examples of communication breakdowns and blowouts. Even the Internet, with all the promise it holds to make our communication more efficient, is not the answer. In fact, I’m seeing a troubling trend. The more we try to improve our communications with high tech, slick productions, the farther we get from the real answer. In my opinion, there is an inverse relationship between how long the management team wrings its hands to forge the "right message" and the ultimate effectiveness of that message. The more spin they try to put on it, the worse it gets.

Increasingly, well-meaning executives think they have to roll out a major new initiative like the opening number of the Academy Awards. "We need sizzle! Excitement! We want to wow our employees and show them we’re committed to this new change." Companies somehow think the more money they put in the communication budget the more effective it will be. Not so.

Employees don’t want to learn about closing a plant from a video featuring the CEO. They don’t want to hear about the roll out of the company’s new mantra: "Teamwork means Quality" at an all-company meeting where plaques and T-shirts are passed out. Enough hype. Just talk to people. And the smaller the group the better.

We would do well to take a lesson from 531 CEOs whose companies underwent major restructuring. A survey done by Watson Wyatt Worldwide asked, "If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?" Most answered, "The way I communicated with my employees."

What would those changes look like and what lessons can we learn? A Harvard Business Review article, May-June 1996, "Reaching and Changing Frontline Employees," by T.J. and Sandar Larkin, http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu that major changes need to be communicated in a new way. As you can see below, they don’t think bigger is better.

For Major Changes:

§      Only communicate the facts and stop communicating the values. Employees want to know the facts about what is coming and how it is going to affect them. The more you talk about trust, openness and involvement the more suspicious they will become about your real intentions. Act on your values-- don’t talk about them. Tell the truth about how many people really will be laid off, what decisions are non-negotiable and in what areas you really will listen to input.

§      Communicate face-to-face; do not rely on videos, publications or large meetings.

Three independent studies of employees in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia show employees prefer face-to-face communication to video at a rate of two to one.

As satellite communications make live transmissions more affordable, CEOs are likely to feel satisfied that their message was more interactive, and therefore, more effective. Don’t bet on it. Employees still want to know, "But how is this going to affect me?"

Written publications aren’t any better. The Larkins quote from a study done by Mercer Management Consulting that shows communication managers referred to their publications as "attempts at the truth," and less than 15 percent said the publication reflected the entire truth. And anyone who has ever written a sensitive announcement for the Company Bugle knows why: by the time the article has gone up and down the chain of command and everyone has signed off on the eleventh draft, the truth is barely recognizable.

§      Target frontline supervisors: do not let executives introduce change to front line employees.

Sad but true, employees don’t trust the top brass. Also, cited in the article, a 1994 study by the Council of Communication Managers shows that 64 percent of employees believe that management is often lying. How many bad experiences does it take to destroy trust? Just one. Unfortunately, the wave of downsizings, restructurings and closings add up.

So what is the answer? Start by involving supervisors early in the impending changes. The Larkins suggest that a senior manager and a small group of supervisors have at least two briefings. At the first, the manager explains in simple, straightforward language (talking points are recommended) what the change will be, what is non-negotiable and what areas are open for input and ideas. The senior manager then goes back and the senior team tries to work in as many of their ideas as possible.

At the second meeting, the senior manager reports on the status of the recommendations. Supervisors have time to talk with their employees. Two weeks later, announcements come out announcing the change. The process is often the exact reversal of the typical roll out. No big hoopla. No big road show. Just grass roots communication. Hmmm. What a concept.

Open communication begins with trust.  And trust begins with honestly.  Coaching can be as difficult to deliver as negative feedback.  Well-delivered praise is specific and thanks the person for what he or she did. If appropriate, it also ties their action to the goal.  

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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