Communication: Why Can’t We Just Communicate?

Communication is the basis of almost all human interaction.  Communication builds trust, decreases uncertainty, increases productivity, and strengthens the cohesion of an organization’s culture.  Although communication is known to be absolutely critical to any relationship or organization, most of us struggle at assembling and transferring our messages to others.  The majority of employee satisfaction and organization assessment surveys identify lack of communication as one of the central employee concerns.  Benchmarks on organizational communication reveal that a “leading” organization only has a 60 to 65 percent approval rating on internal communication while the typical is closer to 35 to 45 percent.   In reviewing over 200 employee satisfaction surveys from a variety of industries and regions, I found that quality of communication was a top three issue in more than 80 percent of responses.

So, what do employees receive in “leading” organizations that fail to receive in others? Further research reveals that there are common concerns that most employees have about their organization as well as their job.  Effective employee communication typically relays the following answers on a regular and consistent basis:

  • Where is the organization going?
  • What role do I play?
  • What can I expect in the future?

Where is the organization going?

A very common concern for employees at all levels is “Where is the organization going and how is it going to get there?”  A basic human desire is to understand the current situation and how that might change over time impacts all of us.  More importantly, employees want to make sure they are willing to continue with their current employer and that is a hard decision to make if direction is not known. Rationality mandates a certain amount of information to make good decisions.  When there is a lack of communication, employees are left to “guesstimate” what the future might hold.  This happens in a variety of ways, but a very common one is employee discussion or hypothesizing.  Assuming a rational process involves identify various options and weighing the cost and benefits of each as part of decision-making, having to guess the direction as well as the associated value of each option significantly reduces the chance that the best decision can be made.  I work with organizations on a fairly basis that complain that employees spend an inordinate amount of time guessing about the future, divining the motives of managers, and collecting bits and pieces of information as if they were building a wall size puzzle to understand their organization.  The amazing thing is that when those same managers are asked what do you communication about the future of the organization, the response is almost always nothing.  If an organization does not deliver the message, someone else will.

What role do I play?

A favorite question of a young child is “why?”  If you have been lucky enough to have a conversation with your two or three year old about everything that he or she has questions on, you will find that a lot of answers just do not satisfy their curiosity.  Almost before delivering the answer, a “why?” flies out of his or her mouth and you will feel like you are trying to define a common word without using any of the words you used in the previous definition.  I reached a point with my youngest where when she asked “why?” I just wanted to tell her something so absurd that it would stump her and break the cycle. I quickly found out that I am not smarter than a three year old.

Employees can have the same type of tenacity at times.     The big “why?” for employees are what do I need to be doing, how should I do it, what are the expected outcomes, and why am I doing this? Although most of these are more tactical questions, the big question for employees is “how does what I do benefit the organization and those we serve?”  Empirical research in almost every industry indicates that feeling a sense of accomplishment and adding value are critical to employee satisfaction and engagement.

What can I expect in the future?

Have you heard of the water-cooler prophet? I worked with an organization a few years ago that was failing to efficiently communicate internally.  As I interviewed employees, several names came out as who employees went to for information about the organization and its future on a consistent basis.  None of the names were in leadership roles or even positions of any type of authority.   Most were long term employees in low level positions that knew the history of the organization and most of the employees on a more personal level.  As employees described the water-cooler prophets, it became evident they were the primary source of information about the future of the organization as well as the central resource for interpreting current events.  If an organization does not account for the future, someone else will.

Figure 1: Internal Communication Table

If common employee questions are clustered together, two core dimensions are most reoccurring:  level of the organization and area of interest.  The first dimension represents the applicable level of information from within the organization: organizational, team, and individual.  The second dimension captures the major areas or frames of concern: strategic, job, and future. Figure 1 summarizes the results of the typical desired, internal communication by the two dimensions while each cell captures the nexus of concerns that most employees have on a day-to-day basis.

Most leaders if given the choice would not default to employees deciding the future of the organization, assigning their own work, or setting expectations.  However, by not communicating leaders are creating that situation exactly.   Poor communication creates a vacuum and something will definitely fill the vacuum in time.  Moreover, when important answers come from below, leaders end up being more reactive than proactive to the direction and success of the organization.

Over the next several posts, we will explore the positive and negative impact of communication in more detail.

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