Less Communication, More Conversation

How Silence May Be Killing Your Company.

I know. That headline sounds a little heretical, coming from a life-time corporate communicator who’s been all bent on more and better corporate communication.

But I think it’s high time those of us in charge of media and messages and channels and town halls and intranets to stop and smell the madness for a moment.

What we really need is not more “communication” but much more conversation. You know, the kind where people both talk and listen. And raise questions. And debate the best course of action. True two- way, free-form, unscripted and often uncomfortable dialogue.

The single-source-of-truth-from-on-high mindset

The problem with traditional “corporate” communication is the one-way, single-source-of-truth-from-on-high mindset behind it. It sounds something like this:

“Listen to us (leadership) because we have something important to share. Here’s what’s happening and this is what we expect from each of you ‘moving forward’ … (add a bunch more cliché-ridden terms). So is everyone on board?”

What is clear to everyone in attendance, but never stated, is this:

“We’re in charge. We have arrived at the best answers. We aren’t asking what you think because we have the arrived at the right answer and, well, we’re more important and smarter than you.”

The problem with this attitude, beyond audience disrespect, is that it is directly crossways with the way the world is moving. Radical disruptive change requires openness, transparency and real teamwork. Leadership needs us to be engaged in innovative solutions.

Since I never had a chance to offer any input into the changes being mandated from on high, I’m not on board and certainly not engaged. I just do what I’m told.

Hierarchal, command-and-control regime-thinking creates just the opposite: silence, submission, resentment and anger. It also crushes creativity by rejecting the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere. But today, as always, the best ideas often come from those underlings closest to the source of the problem or opportunity.

A 2003 Harvard Business Review article, Is Silence Killing Your Company?, asserted that “silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual…

“Every time we keep silent about our differences, we swell with negative emotions… We begin to feel a sense of disconnection in our relationships, which in turn causes us to become increasingly self-protective. A destructive ‘spiral of silence’ is set in motion.”

It would be great to have the two researchers who wrote that article repeat it today and see if there is more or less silence in corporations today?

Employees want open communication with bosses – but few get it

A March, 2015 15Five survey found that 81 percent of 1,000 U.S. workers would rather join a company that values “open communication” than one that offers great perks such as free food, gym memberships and the like. Unfortunately, most employees don’t work in such companies. According to the survey:

  • Only 15% of employees are “very satisfied” with the quality of communication within their companies.
  • Only 15% of employees believe their managers “highly value” their feedback.
  • 58% of employees said managers value their feedback only moderately, slightly, or not at all.
  • 62% of employees share their professional goals with managers just a few times a year or less.

Too busy to listen

In particular, younger employees feel “unheard.” When asked why they don’t share feedback with bosses, 29% of millennials said managers are “too busy to listen” while 28% said their managers “don’t ask us to share these things.” Meanwhile, 17% of millennials feel their “feedback isn’t taken seriously.”

Interestingly – and fortunately – new workplace communication tools could help. About 70% of employees said they’d be more likely to share information with managers if they could enter comments into a web-based feedback platform – with millennials most likely to use such platforms and boomers least likely. Some 60% of respondents said such a platform would make it easier to communicate with team members of a different generation.

“Clearly, companies have a lot of work to do to foster open dialogue,” said David Hassell, CEO of 15Five. “If teams aren’t communicating with honesty, clarity, and respect, then their companies won’t thrive; finding ways to bridge generational divides, encourage honest feedback, and improve transparency will go a long way to boosting productivity, morale, and profits.”

OK, I’m dreaming to think that leaders will suddenly shrink their egos and start going to meetings where all topics are on the table and everyone gets a chance to speak. This is a culture change that will require career and financial carrots and whips. It will definitely take time for employees to trust their leaders enough to question and challenge things that they see as ineffective, wasteful or down-right wrong.

Where does less formal communication, more conversation leave us professional communicators? If anything, I’d say our role has expanded. There still needs to be strategy and clear messaging, distributed through the most effective channels.

But our bigger and much more exciting role is to spark and lead the critical conversations that need to be happening among and between all stakeholders regularly … in meetings where everyone has an equal right to speak, and leaders really listen.

That’s the kind of corporate communication I want to be a part of. What say you?

Related Communitelligence courses:

Using Co-creation to Build Employee Voice and Engagement

Back to Face to Face: How to Re-ignite Your Manager Communication Program

Leading Your Culture to Collaboration Using Social Intranet Tools

 

September 6, 2017

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