Talk amongst yourselves

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate on February 3, 2010 at 9:35 am

As businesses and organizations talk about the audiences they need to target in order to reach their goals and objectives, they often overlook the one audience that has the greatest impact on success: employees.

Typically, this isn’t because leadership doesn’t appreciate employees – even the worst leaders know that the workers are the people who actually make things happen. No, it’s usually because they assume employees have been given all the information they need, and that they’ve heard it and understood it.

In a way, such leaders might be right. If all you want an employee to do is his or her job, then all you have to do is make sure that employee knows how to do that job and what tools to use (in simplest terms, which nut to tighten and which wrench to use).

But the best leaders know that, while putting these kinds of blinders on employees might get specific jobs done, it won’t generate the kind of engagement required to get the best from people. To illustrate this, biz gurus often point to a study involving an airplane manufacturer. One group of employees was trained fully and put to work; another group of workers was similarly trained, but also taken to the engineering lab to see how the parts they made helped the company build jets capable of flying higher and faster than any other jets.

Guess which group saw productivity soar?

I’ve thought a lot about these sorts of things in recent weeks as we’ve worked with a client that’s stepping up internal comm. – recognizing its value, the firm has committed considerable time and energy to getting it right. And that process reminded me of a set of “Rules for Internal Communications” I developed a few years ago.

I won’t pretend I invented these rules – but I will note that these kinds of guidelines often are overlooked when companies get focused on survival or recovery (as most are now). Oddly, it seems that many organizations consider dedicated internal comm to be a “luxury” only affordable when things are good. The best organizations realize they are a key part of any success.

So, with all of that as prelude, I offer “John’s Rules for Internal Communications.”

  1. Tell employees everything you can when you can.
  2. Don’t lie. (This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many organizations justify lying to employees, or at least not telling the full truth.)
  3. Tell employees first – before anyone outside the company’s walls – and never let them learn anything about the organization through the media unless it is absolutely unavoidable (for public companies, for example, legal or SEC regs sometimes dictate timing, and any organization could encounter a rare exception based on business developments or relationships … however, even in those cases, employees must be informed as soon as is legal and feasible).
  4. Never put out vague or incomplete communications – you’ll raise more questions than you answer.
  5. Never leave employees to draw their own conclusions.
  6. Understand that any information void will fill quickly with rumor, speculation and gossip.
  7. Treat employees like adults – give them bad news as well as good news. Be clear, don’t sugarcoat, don’t try to sell them on a particular point of view.
  8. Always assume that a question raised by a number of employees is on the minds of many more – but don’t respond on a global scale to a localized problem – and always be prepared to answer calmly and directly the most cynical questions.
  9. Overcommunicate … but remember that burying employees in useless information will dull their senses to real information.
  10. Consider: Is there a chance I will regret what I am saying? Will I have to eat my words, or explain myself later?

Looking at this list in today’s context, I might add one more rule: Go with the flow in terms of communications vehicles. Take the time to learn how your employees like to get information, and then provide it that way. For example, don’t assume a newsletter and an email will get the job done if your people value face-to-face communications and more cutting-edge communications.

So, if you compare your practices to the list above, how many rules are you breaking? And which ones do you break most frequently? And, most important, what are you going to do about it?

  1. This is a great list John. I’d add another: Listen too. I think some companies are afraid of hearing negative feedback from employees too. Isn’t it better to hear from your own people – who often are on the front lines – than to hear negatively from your customers?

  2. Great point … and it underscores a sad truth: So many decisions about communicating internally (or, rather, NOT communicating internally) are driven by fear: Fear of what employees might do with information, fear of how they’ll react and, as you point out, simple fear of what they’ll say.

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