Over the years, leaders and even professional communicators have labored to shape its content and direction (e.g., control it), even while saying they encouraged its “unfettered flow.” For many, control remains the purpose of much of our practice.
But it’s a far different world today than when (not so long ago) large corporations referred to “employee communication” as “employee information.” Today, the Internet and social media have totally altered the equation. Unfettered flow—with all it implies, good and bad—has become the norm. What would Aldous Huxley have said of this environment? I told you so?
Still, there are some anchor concepts that remain constant and ought to govern our actions as communicators:
1. Make no assumptions.
We do it all the time. We assume that just because an email has been sent, a story published on the intranet or a tweet posted that communication has taken place. Maybe people have seen it, maybe they haven’t. Maybe they “understand” what we’re trying to get across, and maybe they don’t. In the 1980s Peter Senge of MIT coined the phrase “mental models” which govern how we filter and process all communication and our personal concepts of virtually everything we think about. Get people to share a common mental model of something—say, an organization’s strategy—and get out of the way. The force of the collective will can astound.
2. Don’t CYA, just KISS it
The blame game may never end in our business, and we waste enormous energy playing it. We also waste a lot of energy turning the simple into the obtuse. For years, as communicators we’ve railed on and on about the importance of simple, clear language—as in Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). Yet, slowly and surely we’ve become the very purveyors of “companyspeak,” often without realizing it. It’s insidious. “Partnering” and “pivoting” regularly pepper our prose. While language is dynamic and changing, we need to serve as role models for eliminating the nonsense of polysyllabic pomposity. (Oops!) It just complicates our lives and those whom we seek to influence.
3. Remember the 2:1
Admittedly at some personal career risk over the years, I’ve gently reminded a few senior executives that we all have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that ratio. That advice probably applies as much to us as to those we support. Listen more, talk less. Take a long walk in the country and you’ll soon wonder at all the sounds you miss in the city. The same holds for our organizational environment. Stop and listen—really listen. Learn from what you hear. Smell the flowers, too, if you have the time.
It’s interesting that as the world of print media copes with the squeeze of its business model, organizational communication continues to thrive. Be thankful for that. But also remember that our organizations truly lean on us to help get employees aligned around common goals. And we need to tackle that task without making any assumptions, keeping things simple and direct, and remembering to listen more than we talk.
Nick Miles has been engrossed in employee communication for more than four decades in such varied businesses as higher education, plastics, major appliances, computers, pharmacy benefits and, currently, financial services. He currently works in executive communication at TIAA-CREF in New York City.