“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw)
The skill to communicate has always been vital for individuals. It is what every human being learns, implicitly and explicitly, from the time they enter this world. It sets the successful apart from the rest. Today, it has gone on to becoming an organisational skill, differentiating successful organisations from the others. But how does something as simple, omnipresent and innocuous as communication cause the downfall of entire organisations?
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw)
With the current age of technology and communication media, one might imagine that businesses would have no problem in forming and maintaining lines of communication with their employees. It goes without saying that an organisation’s employees are spokespeople for that organisation. They convey a picture of the company and how it is doing. The more they are informed, the better they can represent the company in the broader community (Phelps, 2000). Internal communications do not need to be extensive to be useful. The important factor appears to be a continuous flow of information, even if the answer is a simple ‘work in progress’. Employees appreciate being kept in the loop. Research clearly shows that the development of an internal communication strategy and its implementation can provide a number of benefits to organizations, such as:
- Motivation and engagement: Keeping employees motivated and engaged, and sharing clear, consistent messages with employees in a timely manner (Clemons, 2003).
- Maintaining team relations: Communicative interactions in the workplace serve to create and maintain work relationships among team and organizational members, and between those members and key organizational stakeholders (Myers 2009; Sias 2009). In particular, communication that reveals shared values and reflects common commitments to organizational goals enables co-workers to forge and sustain productive relationships in organizations (Herriot 2002).
- Performance and productivity: Communication can also have direct and indirect effects on team and organizational performance (Greenbaum and Query 1999). Furthermore, interactions and relationships in the workplace are influenced by numerous individual differences in communication, and these have been found to affect co-workers’ satisfaction and productivity (Jablin and Krone 1994).
Although managers spend most of their time communicating (e.g. sending or receiving information), one cannot assume that meaningful communication occurs in all exchanges (Dunn, 2002).
Great Place to Work® Institute, Inc. has studied and identified the best workplaces for over 25 years. By surveying millions of employees and studying thousands of organizations, the Institute has built a framework and model for creating high performance organizations built on trust. Communication holds an extremely important place in the Great Place to Work® framework and model. This model explains 5 dimensions essential to creating and sustaining a great workplace, namely credibility of management, respect for people, fairness, pride and camaraderie. The aspect of communication not only figures categorically among the 15 sub-dimensions of the model, but also has implications on the other sub-dimensions.
Research by the Great Place to Work® Institute indicates that communication has a direct impact on the perceived credibility of the management of any organisation. Good communication skills invite two-way dialogue. Effective managers are both clear and informative with the information they volunteer. They are accessible to employees, affording them the opportunity to begin conversations about the information they might need or want to share. Positive communication skills will allow managers to hear about and address rumours before they start. If employees know their managers are up front with them and feel they can ask questions freely when there are concerns, there will be no need to fill in information gaps with guesses or suppositions. Clear communication allows employees to meet manager’s expectations, choose their priorities carefully and, thus, be more productive.
Here are some examples of how good communication might play out in the workplace:
- The team is kept up-to-date on changes occurring in the department.
- Employee questions are shared with the work group.
- Regular formal and informal meetings are held.
- Frequent face-to-face interactions between managers and employees occur.
- Time is set aside for co-workers to communicate and ask questions.
- Employee agreement exists around manager’s expectations.
Effective communication underlies the other dimensions of fairness, respect, pride and camaraderie as well. Open and transparent communicationpromotes an environment of equity and fairness. How supportiveness and care towards employees is communicated affects perceived respect. Communicating the impact of one’s work, achievements of the team and what the organization stands for enables an employee to take pride in what he does. The way people communicate within an organisation influences the sense of camaraderie they perceive.
Communication plays a vital role in what effective line managers or people managers do on a daily basis, namely, listening, speaking, inspiring, collaborating and redressing grievances.
At great workplaces, management goes to great lengths to be open and transparent, offering access to information across the board, enabling and encouraging employees to contribute beyond the scope of a narrowly defined job. Special open systems for incorporating people’s ideas, for including people in decision-making are put in place.A small but extremely essential part of communication involves tackling grievance redressal and best workplaces use systems where employees redress what they consider an undesirable workplace situation or challenge or appeal decisions made by management that adversely impact their status. Presence of such systems in the organisation indicates robust communication processes. However, merely presence is not enough and effective implementation is another story.
A 2012 Study by Great Place to Work® based on employee perceptions of around 400 organisations shows a co-relation between good communication (management keeps me informed about important issues and changes) and intent to stay in the organization( I want to work here for a long time).
The same study also shows a co-relation between good communication (management keeps me informed about important issues and changes) and employees’ perception of working in a great place to work. (Taking everything into account, I would say this is a great place to work).
Certain key principles have to be kept in mind while implementing practices around communication. Key principles are what underline best practices. These principles make practices robust. While best practices can change over time, the principles remain true over a long time. They may seem obvious in retrospect, but might be lost in the midst of multiplicity of “best practices”. Some key principles for communication are listed below:
- 99:99:99 – 99 per cent of all information, 99 per cent of the time to 99 per cent of the people. When in doubt, communicate. Communicate bad news proactively too.
This principle is inspired by Mindtree which introduced and called it 95:95:95.
The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, used to send out the company’s business strategy at the beginning of the year. He also used to distribute the quarterly business review letter that he would submit to Google’s Board of Directors to Googlers worldwide. The current CEO Larry Page continues this practice. Several quarterly meetings allow Googlers insight into the company’s broad strategies as well as how they’re progressing against internal goals. The CEO also holds multiple sessions to ensure that Googlers around the world have access to this high-level, strategic information. “One thing that'd strike anybody who has worked in any other company immediately upon joining is the openness at Google. I was thrilled to see the level of details shared by management with all the employees. For example, we are always kept up-to-date with company's strategy for the future and the challenges we are facing. Also, a great deal of transparency is maintained about current/past performance. Everyone is open to discussion on anything and constantly looking for ways to improve.”- Google employee
When news broke out that worms were found inside Cadbury wrappers, Cadbury (now Kraft) not only took steps to change packaging, but made sure all employees got the right information before communicating externally. Employees at the best workplaces know that they are more likely to hear any bad news from their managers first than from the press or any other external source.
- Keep reinforcing the core values
To preserve Qualcomm’s history, the employee communications group created a collection of short stories called 52 Weeks at Qualcomm.These quick-reads cover the history of the company, profiling major milestones, divisions, technologies and people. Each story provides insight into Qualcomm’s unique culture and reinforces the core values. Specifically, the stories that:
- Reinforce Qualcomm’s innovative and dynamic culture
- Explain why taking on challenges is critical for the company’s success
- Educate employees about the various divisions and projects that have shaped the company
- Support new employee integration and learning
Existing employees have the option of subscribing for the series and more than 90% employees subscribe to this.
- Communication is not equal to speaking, involves listening
To equip leaders to be good listeners, all leadership development programs at American Express have modules focused on enhancing listening skills (many of which are mandated for leaders) - e.g. Authentic Leadership, LIEE (Leading and Inspiring Engaged Employees), New Leader Training & Situational Leadership. Philips Innovation Campus has “Express Yourself” whiteboards which employees can use to voice their opinions.
- Make managers accessible and approachable (On demand leadership)
Google hosts ‘Thank God It’s Friday’ which are informal weekly get-togethers on Friday afternoons that include important company announcements, a question and answer session and of course, great food. Three beliefs lie at the heart of this weekly session:
- Employees have the right to know what’s happening at the company
- They should feel comfortable asking questions of even the most senior members of the management team
- Executives should talk to employees as openly as possible
Ajuba’s ‘Reach Out’ program is designed to close the gap between an employee and the top leadership of Ajuba. ‘Reach Out’ provides the employees of Ajuba an opportunity to meet the HR Director and share their feedback, suggestions and grievances in complete confidence.
- Communication and Empowerment are linked. Provide relevant information to empower people.
At Marriott, each frontline employee has the freedom to spend a predefined amount to compensate customers for any deficiency in service or for any act of customer delight. Some time ago, an employee of their restaurant in Juhu, Mumbai, gave an irate customer a bottle of champagne. The employee could decide to do so because every day he gets to know relevant business information through their daily newsletter, called the Daily Packet.
- Equip people managers with right communication tools
Google relies heavily on the managers to maintain a sense of transparency and keep the lines of communication open. Some time ago , they engaged in an internal study called Project Oxygen, which identified the best practices of the top managers. Based on a rigorous analysis of four data sets, including survey comments and performance reviews, effectively communicating (the ability to foster transparency, share information and listen) was identified as a key behaviour possessed by the most effective managers. The findings were shared globally for training all managers throughout the company on these practices through Managing@Google initiative.
At Agilent,in order to ensure that information cascades to all levels and is consistent, Communication Toolkits are put together. A toolkit essentially consists of a slide set with supplementing documents like Q&A etc. This toolkit is developed every quarter for all managers and equips them with ready information that they can share with their teams. These kits are used across Agilent globally and are termed ‘Meeting in a box’.
- Measure the impact of your communication
Each year the Internal Communications team at NetApp conducts a company-wide survey to solicit feedback about formal communications and evaluate the effectiveness of the internal communication program. The results are used to build a plan for scaling internal communications.
- Mindset that management doesn’t know all the answers and that every employee can contribute even beyond his role, and is essential to business success
At Google, when Nikesh Arora, the Senior VP for Global Sales and Business Development, was looking to lay down the strategy for 2010 and beyond, rather than do it with just a few leaders in a room, he asked every Googler on his global team to help him set the agenda by posting their ideas on “improving, fixing, or doing something different at Google” on an internal page. The campaign, entitled ‘Change the Game’, received an overwhelming response and 30% of the ideas generated have been organised around six broad themes for implementation. Nikesh and his team have been posting updates on the progress of each of these initiatives, with some having been completed after just a few months, while soliciting even more feedback along the way
2. Involve all stakeholders: employees, customers & shareholders etc. to get a 360 degree view, in particular people who are impacted by a decision.
At American Express, the leader and employee Goal Setting conversation is an opportunity to discuss how the employee’s goals align with business unit goals and to agree what capabilities are needed to achieve success. At this step the employees are given context, goals are reviewed; strengths & development areas are discussed, followed by next steps in terms of revisions and approvals of goals. This is how the manager and reports collaborate to ensure a high performance.
Today, workplaces face some key challenges when it comes to communication. Research indicates that people communicate based on their generational background. While traditionalists and baby boomers prefer one-to-one communication, Gen Xers want to be called at work and not at home and Millennials communicates through online social media. Baby boomers like to be asked questions and like to be asked for their input and experience. Gen Xers aren’t afraid to ask questions and respond better to open ended questions. Millennials expect frequent feedback from supervisors, open communication on all matters, and prefer working in teams. So how does a team with members from different generations communicate effectively and ensure that there is optimal productivity? At the beginning of any team formation, an effective leader should spend time learning how team members are most comfortable communicating. It is essential to bring everyone onto the same page.To work effectively and efficiently, to increase productivity and quality, one needs to understand generational characteristics and learn how to use them effectively in dealing with each individual.
Today’s organisations have large sections of employees who do not come to a ‘physical’ office every day, and instead work from an ‘open office space’.With fewer employees coming into the office, some companies are reconfiguring floor plans to devote more square footage to communal areas and less to traditional, walled work spaces.Ernst & Young call it an “ofﬁce hotel” programme. In a study by Young (1995), 90 percent respondents felt that this form of communication that was not face-to-face, as is the case in ‘open offices’, was more effective in getting technical information from co-workers and response on work-related problems. However, the opinion on whether it is suitable for brainstorming new ideas was divided. Communication in such situations differs from traditional communication processes.
A major reason behind making this possible is the enabling technology and social collaboration tools we use at work. Using technological tools for communicating, storing, and managing shared data for distributed work is not new. What is new is the extension of those capabilities to cheaper and more ubiquitous devices. To access work materials and interact with colleagues on a 24/7 basis, all one needs is a smart phone or any other wired device that reaches the Internet. Coleman (2006) suggests that being wired is becoming almost essential as teams become more distributed across multiple time zones as well as for busy workers juggling multiple teams and projects. More and more tools like video and audio conferencing, data sharing, instant messaging, and presence detection (Coleman, 2006) are being added to the already long list of social collaboration tools. Research by Garrett & Danziger (2007) on instant messaging causing disruption at work showed that this was in fact not the case and that IMs acted as work facilitators rather than interrupters.
In scenarios where attrition is an issue, effective communication holds special significance. There is enough research to indicate that an employee could leave an organisation due to lack of or inadequate communication (Mitchell, Holtom & Lee, 2001). One never hears of anyone quitting because ‘the organisation communicated way too much’! The Best Companies to Work For 2012 study by Great Place to Work® Institute, India, shows that 80% of the employees surveyed have changed jobs at least once in the last 5 years. This could have resounding implications on the way organisations should communicate with their employees.
Feedback is an essential component of communication in organisations. Whether it involves feedback in the form of an employee survey, 360 feedback, feedback following a performance appraisal, informal performance feedback on a task completed etc, each has nuances that need to be addressed when seeking and giving feedback to ensure effectiveness.
Good communication delivers business results by building trust between employees and their leaders. MakeMyTrip, an Indian company, is in the same league as Google and Intel as one of the best workplaces in India. On asked what makes his company a great place to work this is what an employee had to say, ”Being able to walk upto your superior irrespective of your designation and without fear of any reprimanding and voicing your thought and being listened, receiving experienced advise is something that I have not experienced in my previous organization.”
Effective communication is a great equaliser – any organization can harness the power of communication.
Views expressed are personal.