The most common employee complaint is lack of sufficient communication within the organization. In talking to leaders from a variety of companies it has become clear to me that this is an ongoing issue for many. Not only does this feedback manifest itself in demotivated employees but some of the longer term impacts include ineffective cross-functional collaboration, less creative problem solving and eventually increased undesired attrition. Most organizations do identify the problem through a variety of methods including employee feedback surveys, exit interviews, and one-on-one conversations.
When the “lack of communication” feedback tends to repeat itself enough times, it does usually escalate to executive leadership as a strategic organizational issue. As a result, actions are taken to significantly increase the communication within the organization. It typically starts with the CEO stepping up information sharing in all-hands calls and creating additional opportunities for sharing more detail re: strategy and organizational change. In addition, each functional leader makes an extra effort to pick-up the pace around communications – more update emails go out to the team and there is an increase in transparency around plans and changes.
Leadership is feeling better. They have really stepped up their communications and have made an extra effort. But the negative feedback continues to trickle in… Lack of communication continues to be the feedback de-jour. One digs deeper to try and understand whether this feedback may be coming from a part of the organization that has been left out or forgotten. No! It’s coming from people who just last week were fully briefed and communicated to, in person, around the plans… Surprise quickly becomes anger, frustration… How can these people still feel they have not been communicated to?
I have seen this scenario repeat itself many times, in different settings. As a general rule of thumb this is a leadership and not an employee challenge. In fact, many times this breakdown actually happens within the management layer itself when first and second line managers feel they are not being effectively communicated to. My conclusion is that the term “communication” itself is too broad and ill-defined which leads to ineffective conversations around communications and which primarily focus on the information sharing aspect of communications.
I now try to clearly differentiate between the term “communication” and “engagement” to bring more clarity into the discussion. Embracing the differences and acting on them can completely change the game for an organization.
I believe when management is communicating, they truly are doing just that, communicating the facts and sharing information. This sharing tends to be very unidirectional (emails, all-hands calls, team meetings) and with limited or no opportunity to converse. And no, most employees and first-line managers don’t typically ask the juicy questions in front of everyone when this form of communication is going on. This style is one focused on information sharing, and often even done well with a fair bit of transparency re: plans and challenges. Management really is working hard to make this form of communication effective. It’s not due to a lack of trying.
The problem with this form of communication, which is important but insufficient, is that it does not address some key areas that any high-performance organization needs to address. Such areas include creating opportunities for joint problem solving, jointly refining ideas and plans, creating dialogue across two or more functions, and most important, this form of communication does not enable enough dialogue for people to “disagree and commit” when tough decisions are being made.
Decisions in an organization need to be made on a daily basis, quickly. Everyone understands that and employees want decisions to be made. In most cases, they don’t even mind if it’s a sub-optimal decision as long as they can understand why the decision was made. This form of communication can quickly lead to a “management doesn’t know what it’s doing” perception. Why? Because they are seemingly not engaged with the people who have the knowledge, and therefore, decisions come across as quite arbitrary.
Engagement, while arguably a form of communication, is about bringing the team along on the journey. It is not about feeding them with information (although that is also important) but rather ensuring that on an ongoing basis they are part of the conversation re: how the organization moves forward. At the core of engagement is to create as many opportunities as possible for bidirectional communication (vs. unidirectional communications). It needs to include many discussions, asking for opinions, soliciting feedback and more. Or said differently, communicating in a way which involves people and makes them a part of every day decision making and change management.
Problems should not only be shared but should be jointly tackled involving the appropriate players. And these players do not need to all be in the same function but cross functional involvement should be encouraged where possible. In fact, as result of the right level of engagement in the organization you quickly benefit from management actually owning less problems on its own, there is an increase in cross-functional communications and alignment, and employees and their managers have enough visibility into the decision making process so they can more easily “disagree and commit” when they don’t agree with the decision.
The last point on decision making is very important. Being an engaging leader does not mean that the organization becomes a democracy. Not at all. Decisions need to be made and often these are difficult decisions. But engagement does ensure that those decisions have the best possible chances to get commitment and are implemented quickly and effectively.
I have put together a small table that in a simplistic way summarizes some of these points to call out some of the key differences between my view of communication vs. engagement:
The path towards engagement
Transitioning an organization from primarily communicating to also engaging is not an easy task. I think the first priority needs to be to clearly define as a team what engagement means for your organization. Try and stay away from a catch all communications discussion or you’ll fall back into the trap where some leaders (executive and mid-management) will think their job is done when they have communicated information. That’s why I like calling it something different because it helps crystallize to the team the expectation for day to day engagement with managers and employees and with that earning their trust and commitment.
If one key leader is not able to make the transition, then it can all break down due to the negative cross-functional implications. Some leaders will naturally gravitate more towards engaging than just communicating. It is actually quite easy to spot those leaders. You will typically see a much higher sense of loyalty, employee retention rates, cross-functional bonds and employee satisfaction within their organization. So can leaders who are primarily communicating be taught to be engaging? There will always be the leaders who are self-aware enough and are able and willing to learn and grow. You may find some never make it and that should become apparent quite clearly at which point the organization may need to decide they are just not the right fit.
Has your organization transitioned towards a more engaging operating style? Please share your experiences in the comments.