By Guiniven, John E.
The Journal of Employee Assistance , Vol. 35, No. 1
We all know the parlor game where one person whispers a message into the ear of a second person, who then whispers what he or she heard into the ear of a third person. The game continues in this manner until the last person speaks the message aloud to all the players, who generally howl with laughter because the final message is so totally different from the one that was first conveyed.
The same sort of thing is happening every day at organizations throughout the United States, only it is not a game and it is not funny.
Lack of communication and ineffective communication are contributing to problems in the workplace, where Carl Kaysen (1996) found "sullen, uncooperative workforces," Lester Thurow (1996) said "growing cynicism, mistrust and anxiety [exist] even among those entering the workforce with MBAs," and Roger D'Aprix (1996) painted a picture of employees who have "little or no loyalty to employers." Harris Interactive, part of the Harris Poll, found that only a third of workers have "a clear understanding" of what their organization is trying to accomplish, only 20 percent have a clear "line of sight" between their tasks and their organization's strategic goals, and just 17 percent feel their organization "fosters open communication" (Covey 2004).
There is a disconnect between those at the top and those at the bottom, leading to disengaged workers who cost U.S. businesses between $290 and $350 billion annually Perhaps more disturbing, the disconnect also exists between those at the top and those in the middle, between the policy-setters and the supervisors and middle managers charged with turning policy into reality. These supervisors and middle 'managers are the frontline communicators--nearly a third of workers' decisions are based on communications from their supervisors, compared to just 5 percent on directives from the CEO or other top management. Supervisors and middle managers also feel abandoned, to the point where, increasingly, they are identifying with workers and their complaints rather than with executives and organizational goals (Lukaszewski 2004).
The system is broken, and the purpose here is to explain how it got that way and offer suggestions to fix it. A central point is that human resources professionals need to get involved, strategically and managerially, in employee communications.
Martin Gannon (1999) and his team identified three eras of human resources management; in earlier research, C. J. Dover (1964) identified a like number of eras in employee communications. They paralleled each other for a while, and then a break occurred that has caused human resources management and employee communication to be out of sync for the past several years.
In 1911, Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management and ushered in the man-as-ox era, where the prevailing thought was that inherently lazy workers had to be coerced into doing an honest day's work. That approach lasted into the 1950s, the post-war boom period in which workers had leverage and it was hard to intimidate men who had just come back from war. Employers adopted a behavioral approach, and a kinder, gentler workplace existed into the 1970s.
Then, human resources management became economic-based Pension plans started exercising their considerable muscle, individuals began entering the stock market in droves (largely through 401(k) and other retirement programs), and executive compensation became tied to the performance of the company's stock. These developments forced businesses to put shareholders first. In addition, global competition began to take root, which meant companies also had to be keenly aware of the need to cut costs to keep prices low and satisfy customers. Employees thus became seen as a cost. Downsizings, outsourcings, part-time workforces--all are manifestations of the economic approach to human resources management. …