The role of CEOs as chief engagement officers in the social media era is being increasingly recognized in our field. In my previous blog entry, I summarized my research on why effective CEO communication is important. Simply, CEOs who are better communicators are perceived as better leaders. Furthermore, successful CEO communication builds leadership credibility, empowers employees, nurtures better employee relationships, and most importantly, engages employees. This post continues our discussion on CEO internal communication and focuses on the question of “how” effective CEO communication can be achieved.
The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that CEOs in developed countries, such as the US, are not typically viewed as trustworthy and credible sources of information about companies. This lack of trust is alarming as it indicates the distance between status quo and the goal. If this is so, how should CEOs communicate to boost trust and effectively engage their employees? What communication styles should they advocate? What communication channels should they adopt in this ever-changing digital era? What follows is a summary of my conclusions based on literature review and my recent survey research of 545 US employees.
Developing a Responsive CEO Communication Style
Literature suggests two types of communication styles: assertive communication and responsive communication. Assertiveness focuses on the task dimension of relationships. Assertive communicators are described as dominant, forceful, aggressive, and competitive communicators. Responsiveness, by contrast, focuses on the relational dimension of relationships. Responsive communicators are those perceived as empathetic, compassionate, responsive, understanding, friendly, warm, sincere, and interested. Moreover, responsive communicators are more sensitive to others, listen to what others have to say, consider the feelings of others, and have the uncanny ability to identify and recognize their needs. My research shows that responsive CEOs are perceived as better communicators than assertive CEOs. Even though CEOs are top leaders who are expected to speak up and be strong, assertive and dominant when communicating in certain situations, responsive communication works more effectively than assertive communication in terms of relationship building and employee engagement.
Embracing Transparency and Authenticity
The secrecy of management is an obsolete concept; nowadays, it is simply impossible to hold secrets in this socially connected digital era even though being transparent poses risks and challenges. More importantly, employees place higher expectations on corporate and management transparency. Transparent communication naturally leads to employee trust, satisfaction, and better engagement. In fact, my survey research shows that CEOs perceived as transparent are also considered likable leaders who can sustain their corporate image in the eyes of both internal and external stakeholders. Authenticity matters even more. In an era when “people want to hear authentic stories about authentic people,” authentic leadership and communication greatly influences positive employee outcomes, such as increased levels of trust, satisfaction, commitment, and engagement. CEO authenticity involves genuineness, truthfulness, and consistency. The results confirm that employees who perceive their CEOs as authentic leaders tend to trust and engage with the company more, as they recognize the natural linkage between a trustworthy CEO and the company he or she represents.
Optimizing Communication Channels and Going Social
The evolution of new forms of technology has transformed the internal communication landscapes of many organizations, and emerging digital tools have blurred organizational communication hierarchies. For example, these tools now allow CEOs to change their images from being distant and intimidating authority figures to approachable and personable leaders. However, based on the research survey, CEOs still mostly use traditional communication tools, such as face-to-face channels, email and print media, when communicating with employees. Only about 11% use social media platforms, such as blogs and social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc.) to connect with employees.
Interestingly enough, employees hold a positive attitude toward CEOs who use social media even though CEOs show a moderate level of social media presence. Respondents reported that CEOs with stronger social media presence are perceived as being more approachable, responsive, and authentic. Employees also perceive social media-savvy CEOs as better communicators. Social media communication, which is relational, interactive and personal, fosters equal dialogues between CEOs and their employees, thus reducing the perceived power distance. Such communication approach also facilitates employee upward communication and promotes two-way conversations in the organization, making employees feel more empowered, engaged by the organization, and connected to their top management. Therefore, social media tools offer CEOs convenient and effective alternatives to directly engage employees, even if these tools cannot replace traditional face-to-face communication (e.g., management by walking around).
In sum, the responsiveness, transparency, authenticity, and sociability of CEO communication plays a critical role in engaging employees. To better help CEOs enact their emerging role as “Chief Engagement Officers,” public relations leaders could consider the following checklist:
- Be an organizational strategist with business acumen, as well as a communication specialist and expert. Know the organization inside out so that you are in position to offer advice to your CEO on equal footing.
- Be your CEO’s think tank and offer communication insights and strategic views about what employees are thinking of and their expectations from their CEO.
- Educate your CEO about having a responsive, dialogical, transparent, authentic, and empowering communication mindset.
- Provide training to CEOs on what (i.e., the content), how (i.e., the channels), and when (i.e., the timing) to communicate with employees.
- Equip CEOs with a wide array of communication tools, both traditional and social. Help CEOs build a prominent and visible social media presence, and then encourage them to personally interact with and proactively listen to their employees.
- Never forget to measure the success of such endeavor.
Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., APR, is an incoming assistant professor of public relations at the University of Florida and the research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center.