Stacey SmithEmployee communications is more, must be more, than simply conveying the direction and directives of management throughout an organization.  Employee communication professionals must take responsibility for assisting with all communication flow within the system.   This means engaging in the management of bottom up and lateral communications as well.

A bottom-up communication system allows employees on the frontline of an organization to have voice in decisions that affect their work lives. Such a system might consist of:

  • Establishing and monitoring feedback systems that funnel input directly to the appropriate levels of the organization in a way that can be heard – and then facilitating the responses to that input in a timely fashion
  • Coaching team members that have reservations about giving input and feedback to direct supervisors – and coaching management to encourage a culture of open communication
  • Developing systems to measure if and how information is received, interpreted and acted upon by employees, and how improved communication has helped the organization achieve specific goals
  • Identifying new ways to improve communication – both channels and content — as a result of the feedback

A lateral communication system is typically the biggest challenge for an organization (due to unformed relationships, turf issues and lack of opportunities for management in different business units to work together, or even communicate easily).  Without an intentional system that defines clear guidelines and expectations for lateral communication, the following can result:

  • Working in silos –one business unit trying to achieve specific goals without the understanding or support of another business unit. This can lead to employee frustration, lower productivity and morale problems.
  • Lack of One Clear Voice – delivering different or counter-productive messages to employees and common customers. This can breed mistrust and frustration on all levels.
  • Confusion over priorities — Especially true in matrix organizations where employees who receive different direction from multiple bosses experience frustration and sometimes paralysis over how to handle the situation.

One group must be responsible for working to break down silos, build communication systems and support between groups and individuals.  Employee communications professionals have the skill base, theoretical knowledge and responsibility to do this work.

Some techniques to aid lateral communication include:

  • Establishing cross-functional task forces and work teams that create relationships across the organization, facilitate better and provide an opportunity to identify potential problems due to increased knowledge of the roles and responsibilities … and goals…of each business unit.
  • Listening sessions – such as rolling research with a cross-representation of employees so you can hear firsthand the unique challenges – and perhaps tackle the solutions together.
  • Teambuilding opportunities that give employees the opportunity to work together, learn more about each other’s personalities, strengths and work styles.
  • Communications training at the supervisor level, since many supervisors get promoted not because they are great communicators, but because they are good at the jobs they do. Supervisors, who have responsibility for 3-way communications, are often the key to strong bottom-up, top-down and lateral communications.

Lateral communication is perhaps the hardest arena in which to affect change, because there are fewer structures in place to support it and more barriers to overcome to deliver it.  Of the three, lateral communication requires the most sophisticated skill set by the practitioners.  Beyond knowledge of communications theory and practice, it requires organization development, systems theory and sharp counseling skills and a true understanding of the politics of an organization.

Practitioners must inject themselves in these systems for we are the only ones in a system who have capability to see the communication blockages, and the skill set to help clear the way for better communication, teamwork and thus higher productivity.  It is one of the skill sets that is of highest value to management.

Stacey Smith, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Senior Counsel & Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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