How one question can lead to the wrong answer regarding workforce effectiveness

 For anyone involved in employee or internal communication hearing a senior leader ask this question often leads to frustration or even anger:

“How can we improve Internal Communication?”  This is typically followed with the request – “We need an Internal Communication plan!”

The fallacy in this thinking is that Internal Communication is perceived as an end vs. a means.  It’s not.  Employee Communication is a by-product of an organization’s management model.

As such, it begins with a thorough understanding of the current state and future aspiration of the business coupled with the CEO’s thinking and agenda.  Both of those ingredients are then processed with the culture and employee behaviors of the business to form the right approach, content, tonality, frequency, and cadence of information and interactivity to inform, educate, provoke, and connect people with the enterprise.  Building an internal communication plan without access to or a relationship with the decision-making body of the company is akin to driving to a never visited destination without a map.

Improving Internal Communication cannot be done in a vacuum.  Neither can a plan be developed without the proper inputs.  Unfortunately, there are still communicators who jump to this request and prepare a “plan” based on nothing more than tactics and channels, which ultimately mean nothing to accomplishing internal alignment, organizational confidence, and employee satisfaction.

Employee Communication is the difference between success and failure of any corporate change initiative, restructuring, M&A, new leader transition, major product innovation, organizational crisis, or business strategy execution.  The reason is that at its core employee communication is about how an institution interacts with itself.  How it respects itself.  How it remains relevant. The core tenets of employee communication are neither based on tactics nor channels.  They are based on how the company thinks, operates, decides, innovates, educates, rewards, shares, listens, and projects itself.

Employee Communication at the strategic level is a behavioral and consultative function.  For CEOs and businesses to thrive, providing a bold vision coupled with a realistic view of the current reality is critical to success as the balancing act organizations must maintain is challenged by people changing jobs faster than ever, people distracted vis-à-vis technology and the choice it provides, and shifting expectations of customers and shareholders.

When given the question “How can we improve Internal Communication?” the response should be with a question of our own – “How smart do you want our employees to be?” This is the answer needed to determine the best approach, content, context, and system to achieve the business health necessary for growth.

And for communicators responsible for this precious area, let me offer the following framework to up our game and eliminate wasted effort:

  • It’s Not About Engagement…It’s About Belief – All the talk today about employee engagement is a false promise.  The place we need to focus on is Belief.  Once people believe in a company’s efficacy, purpose, mission then they believe its story.  Engagement is an outcome of Belief.
  • Who is my Workforce? – Do we really know who makes up our workforce?
  • What is the Employee Worldview? – What is our employees’ perspective?  How do they view the world?   
  • What content and context is important to their success? –  Are there subjects that resonate more?  How deep do they need to go?  What doesn’t matter?  Which information is consistent with what people experience in day-to-day work?
  • What is the story being told? – Is it consistent with the company’s strategy?  External image?
  • How are we moving people forward? – Is there a point to our communications?  Does it move people ahead in lock-step with the business?

Now more than ever, increasing employee knowledge and confidence about the business and people’s future is essential to long term success.  The challenge is breaking through in a distracted, noisy and contradictory environment.

But how?  Based on our extensive work in this area over 20 years, there are five actions you can take to improve the employee experience:

  • Be Provocative – People want to be challenged intellectually. Content should reflect what employees are experiencing.  The more provocative the better chance you have in getting attention.
  • Be Real – No corporate speak.  No trite phrases.  Speaking from the heart produces belief.
  • Be Clear – What is it you are saying?  What do you want people to know, feel, do?
  • Be Connected – How plugged in are you to employee networks?
  • Be Smart – Do you know your workforce?  Are you using analytics to better grasp perspectives, relevance, interests, concerns?

Employee Communication is a litmus test for how organizations manage and lead.  Done well, people have a profound sense of purpose and mission and an ability to get things done. A confidence to question decisions and seek new information while sharing ideas and reaching out to colleagues.

And it all starts with asking the right question!