Closing the Communication Gap

Article excerpt

"I never know what's going on around here. No one ever tells me anything!" That's a common complaint among employees at all levels, in all types of organizations. In fact, it's a complaint you may have made yourself.

Complaints about organizational communication persist, although communication issues have been the focus of business analysis for more than two decades. Despite the general agreement that open communication is the basis for effective management, employees continue to feel that organizational communication efforts leave something to be desired.

Even progressive companies that eagerly embrace total-quality training, participative management, employee empowerment, and work-force diversity confront employee dissatisfaction on the communication front. Why does the communication challenge persist?

The answer may be easy. It may be that we often forget, ignore, or overlook basic employee communication principles. Here are some reminders of principles that can increase the chances of meeting the communication challenge.

Recognize the energy required to improve communication. Even such simple efforts as producing a monthly one-page newsletter take great energy.

Communication doesn't just happen. It must be planned and scheduled. It must have task support. Someone must do the research, identify topics, get approvals, prepare materials, set up meetings, answer questions, and hold hands.

Prepare to be honest. Employee trust will develop only when management talks straight. Straight talk means presenting the good news and the bad, answering difficult questions, discussing issues you would prefer not to deal with, and saying, "I don't know."

Plan to use a variety of approaches, including face-to-face sessions with small groups of employees. When we think of employee communication, we often think only of newsletters. A really sophisticated program might also include videos of executive speeches and an electronic bulletin board.

As we move to slicker print and electronic media, we should not forget about the essential small-group contact. Regular, face-to-face, small-group meetings with managers must be part of any communication program that truly satisfies employee needs. The face-to-face component can also take the form of listening sessions, team briefings, or small-group forums. The key factor is that people get together regularly in small groups.

Relate the communication program to business goals and management concerns. The essential relationship between communication and business success should be emphasized from the beginning. Program objectives should include educating employees about the business, about issues that are important to the organization, and about management decisions.

Topics should be future oriented. To stay ahead of the grapevine, communication must address what's about to happen, not what happened last month.

In this era of mergers, "rightsizing," business failures, and global competition, communication is no longer an optional, nice-if-you-have-the-time proposition. We cannot expect high quality and productivity improvement from people who don't know that one of our plants is in danger of closing.

Realistically assess resources. A communication program that is too ambitious for the available resources won't work. It's better to start small and build on success than to begin a program that cannot be carried out.

Resources include time, money, and people. The key initial resource is executive sponsorship. Communication programs seldom succeed without support from the top management of profit-generating units.

Communications efforts don't necessarily need support from all executives, at the beginning or ever. But some key decision maker must be identified as a committed champion able to persuade others. This is especially important for face-to-face communication, which requires active management participation. …