Matters Column

The how and when of effective communication

June 15, 2018
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Day in and day out, we hear discussions related to communications of one type or another. Frequently, this discussion immediately shifts our attention to social media or other postings, or services on the internet, email, who is using it for what, who is tampering with which polls, who is throwing “shade” at who and what sensational position can be advanced, yada, yada, yada. However, communication shows up on billboards, stuff in the mail or other material delivered to your house and various ads on television, as well as news shows (fake or otherwise) on radio and TV. We are bombarded almost every hour we are awake.

So, given these circumstances, how does an employer penetrate this bombardment of information to get you to concentrate on the “important” messages involved in conducting the goals of the organization? Don’t forget these employees still have access to their phones and computers while at work, regardless of the organization’s policy to not allow personal business to interrupt business activity. The first step is to recognize today’s reality. It’s out there, and you aren’t going to change it. So, if you want their attention, you have to join the fray. You have to use the leverage of the job to gain the extra advantage. You have to be smart about it.

If you only think of communications as being one direction and electronic, you’ve already lost the battle.

How do we communicate?

First of all, we have to remember that a lot of communication is written statements or thoughts in a memo or a handbook. But much of our communication with employees is nonverbal or even by actions that are not taken. We often hear about politicians who get “off message.” They have done something or said something that doesn’t conform to the intended plan. The plan is an intended policy or strategy that will generally align with an overall objective. Knowing the overall objective is critical. Furthermore, it has to be well understood by all the influential players. Making this a reality is no easy task. It takes time for people to understand it and buy into it emotionally, as well as intellectually. It is often the emotional aspect that keeps them focused and prevents going off track.

Because of how the message gets to be engrained, being an extended process, it becomes critical the plan and message should not waver, at least not unintentionally — especially if multiple people are carrying the message. If you think of how a business or other large operating entity communicates, there are always many people carrying the message to others, whether it is an external audience (customers, members, vendors) or an internal audience (employees). The point of the communication is generally rather simple: It is intended to align people with the objective of the organization. Of course, under that lofty goal, there are more discrete messages that are focused on particular groups or actions. This is not an issue as long as they are consistent with the overall picture. Consistency is a critical theme in this whole process.

So, getting back to the question of how do we communicate? This requires a basic starting point (after we have defined our objectives and message). That starting point is to whom are we communicating? It may seem simple but reaching a particular audience requires different tools, different points of emphasis and different timing strategies. It also requires a skill often overlooked — listening. As mentioned earlier, communication is not a one-way directional activity. The listening process is essential, as it lets the messenger know if the ideas are getting through, if they are being accepted and whether the medium is appropriate to reach the intended audience.

When do we communicate?

This is possibly the most important part of the communication process. It starts before most organizations even realize it is happening and before the audience realizes it is an audience. It begins with the development of the organization’s mission and image. It focuses on who we are, what we do and how we do things. The image is shaped by products and services and how they are presented to the various communities, followed by how people react to them and what is said in public or private, and the associated persona of the organization.

Today, it becomes a composite of social sites such as Facebook, Glassdoor, YouTube, etc., as well as who becomes visible influential employees in community activities. These community ambassadors and the activities or practices they are involved with often tell a special story about the organization. The special aspects of their operations such as emphasis on diversity, notable pay or benefit programs, work-life balance efforts or unique cultures that have been nurtured over time. The image is not just one element but many things. The important aspect is that it be consistent with the message. It is also important that someone has oversight responsibility and for making sure all elements are aligned with objectives to the best degree possible.

Not just sound bites

Keep in mind it is true substance that is most important, not just sound bites that get noted. This means that if someone starts digging, they find that the real world is the same as public relations presentations. Chances are the people who will do the most to be familiar with the organizations are the future and current employees. The day-to-day events are what will be the strongest communicators of the nature of the organization. It will be these practices that send the messages that we care about you, we want your input and your engagement, and we are willing to support your development, creativity and pardon reasonable mistakes.

Not everyone will be able to see the critical events, nor in many cases should they. They do, however, need to be made aware of how and when things happen, so they can be comfortable with knowing what to expect. This starts with how the organization is positioned in employment ads, and the interview process, followed by a comprehensive onboarding process that is coordinated to get a balanced flow of information and foundation in organization practices and strategies. And that is only the beginning. This communication flow is appropriate and necessary to be handled carefully throughout their career with useful performance reviews. And don’t forget to keep them apprised to important organizational changes and shifts that will impact them directly or indirectly. This should be regular, planned and expected. When we speak of planned, that should also include appropriate media for each type of communication, but you can be creative. After all, you want to stand out from that surrounding fray that you jumped into and continues to change over time.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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