Communication. Why is it so difficult to get right?

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

December and January are months of the year when most organisations receive the results of their organisational surveys.There is always big excitement among executives and HR Directors to learn more about the feedback: Have our results improved? Declined? How are we doing against the sector? Which business units are underperforming?

From all business areas measured in organisational surveys, most of the time, executives are keen to learn more about those results directly linked to 'Communication Effectiveness'. They want to know if people understand their messages, see if employees are fully aligned with their vision, corporate values, business direction and strategies. Do employees understand what senior leadership want to achieve in the short, medium and long term?

Executives and HR professionals are right; effective downward communication relates to better co-ordination, improved individual performance through the development of intelligent participation, greater sense of control and inclusion and increased levels of trust with senior leadership. In general, it relates to overall improved morale. Yes, employees are more engaged when they feel:

  • Aligned with the business vision and clearly understand the role they play in the organisation's success;
  • Informed about company activities and those management decisions that directly affect their work;
  • There is a culture of teamwork and co-operation within the organisation;
  • Valued and trusted in decision-making, empowered and free to speak up, able to ask questions and provide feedback to managers;
  • Recognised for who they are and for the work they do.

None of the above are possible without good communication – higher levels of employee engagement cannot be achieved without effective internal communications. So, if you want to improve your levels of employee engagement and business performance, then you need to improve what, when and how you communicate with the people in your organisation.

Although senior leaders and management are mostly concerned about downward communications, when evaluating an organisation's communication effectiveness, we also need to consider upward, horizontal and informal communication flows. It is the combination of these four interactions that offer us a holistic impression of how well the company is doing in terms of keeping their employees fully informed, engaged and aligned with the organisation's aims and objectives.

Downward communications

This is when senior leadership share information with employees at lower levels in an organisation. It is normally one-directional rather than reciprocal - it does not invite a response from employees. Downward communication normally includes the explanation of an organisation's mission, vision, strategy, and objectives. Effective downward communication results in the recipients acting or otherwise behaving in accord with the communicators' expectation. Typical survey statements linked to downward communications include:

  • Senior Leadership have a clear view of where the organisation is going and how to get there.
  • My line-manager keeps me informed about important work-related matters.
  • The information I need to do my job is readily available.
  • We get information on how well we are meeting our business objectives.
Upward communications

Upward communication refers to the information flow from employees to management and senior leadership. Upward communication is an important source of information that can inform business decisions. It alerts management of new developments, levels of performance, and other issues that may require their attention, including whistle-blowing. Managers who are open to and encourage upward communication foster co-operation, gain support, and reduce frustration among their employees. Typical survey statements linked to upward communications include:

  • I can openly share my opinions and concerns with my line-manager.
  • Sufficient effort is made to get the opinions and thinking of people who work here.
  • Most of the time I can challenge our traditional ways of doing things.
  • People here respond to my requests for information in a timely fashion.
Horizontal communications

This type of communication involves the flow of messages between employees, teams or departments on the same organisational level. Teamwork and co-operation is an important aspect of horizontal communication flows. The maintenance of personal networks and social relationships through lateral communications is a key factor in how people get work done. Typical survey statements linked to horizontal communications include:

  • There is good communication between my department and other departments.
  • There is good communication between work groups in my department.
  • People in my work group work together as a team.
  • People share information and ideas across the organisation.
Informal communication

Informal communications occur outside an organisation's established channels for transmitting information. It has some business disadvantages when it takes the form of rumours spreading confusion and misinformation which is harmful and difficult to shut down because its' sources cannot be identified by management. However, on the other hand, it helps establish better human relations among employees within the organisation and can also positively supplement formal corporate communications. Typical survey statements linked to informal communications include:

  • I always count on my peers if I need information and guidance.
  • I usually hear about important work-related matters first through rumours.

The combination of these 14 survey statements offer an excellent 'Communication Effectiveness' index. It provides a thorough and holistic way to assess the existing communication culture within your organisation. Overall favourable scores of above 75% should be considered a good survey result. But, what happens when we score below 60% - when nearly half of our employee population is in 'Limbo Land'? What are the potential reasons for such low scores?

Challenges in communication

Today, it is fairly easy to get your message across with e-mail, social media, voice messaging, teleconferencing, and even webinars and video broadcasting – so why are there so many disconnected employees?

Unfortunately, communicating to employees is not as simple as it seems. People decode messages in different ways. Sender and recipients do not necessary share the same assumptions or understanding of the business context. Differences in experience, knowledge, levels of authority, status, age and cultural background among employees can result in messages being misunderstood or misinterpreted. No need to say that globalisation makes the communication task even more complex: business units operating in different countries, different time zones, people speaking different languages and in general having different workplace expectations, differences in management style, personality, incompatible roles amongst co-workers, organisational territoriality, rivalry between individuals or teams, specialisation, a lack of uniform knowledge or common vocabulary within or between departments, and potential simple lack of motivation: 'why should I bother?'

Lack of line manager communications skills and/or support is the biggest barrier to internal communication success. Sometimes managers are simply unwilling to spend the additional time and effort to reach out beyond their immediate team or others at the same level. The most common causes of poor communication among managers include:

  • Not understanding the full picture themselves, not being confident about the message content, corporate communications keep on changing all the time, fear of saying the wrong thing.
  • Belief that employees are not interested in the communication; belief that employees do not have the capacity and attention span required for corporate communications.
  • Unwillingness to listen to employees.
  • Lack of time – managers are too busy 'doing'.
  • Prioritising hard business targets over 'softer people' management priorities.
  • Belief that employees have already heard the communication from the CEO.
  • Impossibility of getting all employees in the same place at the same time.

In any internal communication strategy, it is crucial to make sure 'people managers' are fully committed. They need to understand the importance of communications on the engagement levels of their team, its impact on organisational performance, and the key role managers play in facilitating communications/cascading corporate information and guidelines within the wider organisation, their immediate workplace and their teams.

How to rescue employees from 'Communication Limbo'

So, what should we do when employees are potentially isolated within the business and don't have a clue what is going on in their own departments and wider organisation? There are several ways you can improve workplace communication in your business. Some best communication practices include:

Downward Communications:

The more timely and accurate the communication, the less room for error and misunderstanding. Don't over-communicate. Keep it simple, keep the number of corporate messages you send to employees to a minimum.

  • Make internal knowledge and information collateral easily available, and most importantly, encourage employees to use all existing internal communication resources.
  • People retain information more effectively by group discussion, practice by doing, teaching others/immediate use of learning. Use these communication workshop techniques to convey your messages, encourage feedback and invite action.
  • Always measure the impact of your communication. Make sure employees have properly decoded your message. Do monitor and check that your message has been understood and is relevant to every employee. They need to know how they and the organisation will benefit from it and the reasons for those specific actions/interventions.
  • Communications need reinforcement through repetition and discussion about what it all means for each individual. Remember, not every employee will listen and perceive the message in the same way, or on the first occasion.
  • Send consistent messages. When it comes to important company messages, you must be clear in your own mind what the message is. Contextualise all communications. Send an agenda beforehand so employees can prepare accordingly.
Upward Communications:
  • Discourage 'One-Way' communication, allow for it to be a two-way street. Encourage dialogue between managers and direct reports. Have an 'Open Door' policy - be available, meet with employees either in person or online on a regular basis.
  • Ensure managers give up any potential autocratic attitudes. Autocratic behaviours of superiors compel their subordinates to become simple listeners which discourages upward communications.
  • Invest time listening to employees and talking about the things that are important to them from the business' point of view.
  • Shorten upward communication channels. Long lines of communication delays the decision-making process by causing potential distortion and loss of information in the process.
  • Recognise and reward good employee suggestions and feedback. This recognition system will inspire other employees to also communicate upwards and collaborate with their superiors.
  • Organise anonymous employee opinion surveys (including exit interviews), employee suggestion programs, and clarify grievance procedures.
Horizontal Communications:
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities among team members. Be clear about objectives and tasks so everyone knows their responsibility and contribution to the wider team effort.
  • Provide internal platforms for sharing work related information, project updates, new ideas, questions and concerns, and so on. This will help different teams and/or departments stay in regular contact and reduce the need to rely on email or formal meetings.
  • Take advantage of social media. You can use social intranet software in the same manner. Allow employees to share their personal interests/hobbies with each other to create informal interactions that are more meaningful at the personal level. Non work-related conversations promote a more relaxed work environment, camaraderie and general employee wellbeing.
  • Rearrange the office space to make it more 'open' so as to promote collaboration. Encourage employee mingling which is important for workplace relationship-building. If your employees feel like socialising and having an off-topic conversation or debate during the workday, let them.
  • Encourage and facilitate casual interactions. Organise set work breaks for all employees to allow everyone to interact informally while still in the workplace. Joint work breaks promote healthy communication among co-workers and encourages the exchanging of information and ideas.
  • Build team spirit with social and sporting events. Do fun stuff to boost morale and camaraderie. Ensure you organise activities where all employees can participate irrespective of their age, gender, ethnicity, etc.
  • Make sure you build an inclusive work environment. Language barriers are common even among people who speak the same language, so it is not surprising that people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds may face additional communication challenges.
  • Organise communications' training sessions focused on improving group interactions and collaboration. It can also focus on people managers to improve the way they further cascade, decode and encode corporate messages for their own teams. Discuss a clear email etiquette and good communication practices within the organisation. Train your employees on reader-centred writing techniques.
The way forward...

As an organisation grows, communication becomes its biggest challenge.

Communication effectiveness is an essential aspect in achieving productivity and maintaining strong working relationships at all levels of an organisation. It is key for equipping employees with the technical knowledge, external business context, strategic and tactical information and relevance to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Employers who invest time, energy and resources into delivering clear lines of communication will rapidly build trust amongst employees leading to increases in productivity, output, and higher levels of employee engagement.

Communication allows managers to learn from employees. Managers will gain the information they require to take all those actions necessary to generate and maintain positive interpersonal relationships which will lead to the creation of a more productive and inspirational workplace.

By using the research model and some (or all) of the best practice suggestions presented in this article, you can monitor and improve the effectiveness of your corporate communications, bring your different teams together, and generally make the workplace a more efficient, enjoyable and stress-free place to be.

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