After eight years of coaching organisational culture change, and four decades working inside global companies, it’s clear to me that communication is the Achilles Heel of most organisations. The biggest weakness lies in what we say to people who are closest to us – employees and business partners.
Even the word ‘miscommunication’ used as a lie, when it should be an honest admission of failure delivered as part of an apology. Example employee question: ‘Why has my medical insurance cover dropped?’ HR Team answer: ‘ There’s been a miscommunication: the Company changed insurance providers and relatives are no longer covered.’
Beyond intentional lies, people who lead organisations are often surprised that what they think they have communicated has never been seen or heard. Messages they have distributed on email or on company notice boards or in staff meetings. Example CEO question:’Does your whole team know they will be now working on Saturdays?’ Manager answer: ‘They should do, everyone got the email.’
Employee failure to understand or even receive internal communications messages is generally predicated by managers using the wrong environment or tone. Many’s the internal meeting I have attended very early in the morning (excuse: before business hours) where the audience has been subjected to information downloads on important topics like changes to working conditions, revisions to the company mission or business performance information. At that time of day, attendees are worrying about whether the kids got to school, or how they are going to tackle their own work priorities, or whether this early meeting signals some kind of danger. As a result, reception and comprehension levels plummet. I once worked with a CEO who used this setting to update his whole staff on business performance on a quarterly basis. But when I surveyed them after years of this endeavour, no one had the faintest idea how the company was doing.
Wrong tone of voice (written or spoken) has an even more powerful negative impact. Email may be a quick way of reaching everyone, but that is more than outweighed by the fact that it is the most universally hated medium of communication. Add to that a tendency of seniors to underline sentences for emphasis or even write in capital letters (that’s shouting!) and it’s easy to see why it’s not a channel for delivering important announcements. And when it comes to spoken delivery, seniors who are unable to moderate or vary their tone of voice are seldom heard. Another CEO I know used to give his employees lectures on improving their personal finances. Well-intentioned, it failed because he hectored them in his ‘business boss’ voice.