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Are You Sending the Right Signals? It Pays to Be Aware of the Direct and Indirect Messages You Send to Employees. If You're Careful, You Can Help Them See What Better Communication Can Bring to Your Organization

Article excerpt

In his classic text Administrative Behavior (1976), Nobel laureate Herbert Simon described communication as the most ignored component of the administrative process. Ask any communication professional today, and you'll likely find that he or she agrees. It is simply assumed, for example, that employees can communicate well enough to perform their jobs. An organization's structure presumably has established a social architecture among employees that promotes the sharing of information necessary to achieve the firm's goals. Consequently, day-to-day concern for communication recedes into the office woodwork--until there is a breakdown. When this happens, new technologies, training and workplace restructuring are introduced to deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, many of these interventions do not produce their anticipated impact. Even companies that have the most technologically up-to-date communications systems experience serious problems. Why? Because employees see few signs that management truly values effective interpersonal communication, and communicating effectively appears to be a thankless undertaking. What's missing is a culture within the organization that signals the importance of developing and rewarding good communicators.

A culture of communication

An organization's culture is revealed in the assumptions that members share about what is important, such as teamwork, the bottom line, or the quality of service or products. These shared expectations often are derived from the company's founders and top management, whose actions typify the behaviors the organization values.

A communication culture emerges when employees identify and adopt acceptable communication behaviors. Wittingly or unwittingly, managers send signals about what is appropriate conduct, and employees pick up on these cues. Being conscious of their own actions is crucial for managers seeking to build better communication. For example, Aad Jacobs, the retired chairman of ING Groep NV, depended on straightforward, open and truthful information from associates at lower levels of the company. In the book Global Literacies, Jacobs revealed that by modeling authentic communication himself, he cultivated unfiltered upward communication among those who reported to him. Similarly, New York Times writer Clyde Farnsworth described Malcolm Baldrige, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, as able to improve the memo-writing style of agency employees by challenging them to follow his example of writing lean sentences and using active verbs and no unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.

The missing link

Although a strong communication culture may emerge from witnessing the behaviors of top management, research shows that offering rewards and incentives that acknowledge effective communication helps to strengthen and sustain that culture. Yet this rarely happens.

For example, Frederic Jablin's article "Superior-Subordinate Communication: The State of the Art," in Psychological Bulletin (1979), revealed that supervisors who devote themselves to sharing job- and non-job-related information with their subordinates seldom receive tangible recognition for their openness from their own managers. The absence of payback for their openness contrasts starkly with the investment of time and energy that is required to establish and maintain a climate that encourages open communication. Further, Rudi Klauss and Bernard M. Bass, in their book Interpersonal Communication in Organizations (1982), found that being a good listener is largely irrelevant when rewarding job performance. Like creating and maintaining openness, active listening requires a substantial investment of time and energy by employees who are unlikely to earn much organizational recognition.

My own research has documented failures to reward effective communicators, as well. In one firm, for example, performance appraisals classified managers either as role models or as less effective but nonetheless competent managers; appraisers prepared short narratives that provided information about the specific activities that justified the classification. …