The fourth annual Grunig Lecture, presented by the Institute for Public Relations, the University of Maryland and the Public Relations Society of America, is available in full on this website. Dr. Berger has authored the following executive summary.
The great employee communication paradox is this: We know what needs to be done to create excellent internal communication programs and communication cultures, but too few organizations do it. They fail to move from knowing to doing. As a result, employee levels of trust, commitment and engagement remain distressingly low.
Extensive research, dozens of award-winning case studies and a rich array of best practice workshops consistently highlight 15 or so drivers of effective employee communication. Many are linked to the behaviors and communication skills of senior leaders and front-line managers, and to intrinsic employee motivations. This research indicates that internal communication is more likely to be effective when:
1. Senior leaders are visible, walk the talk, listen and respond to employee issues, care about employee well being, and tell employees what’s happening, why it’s happening and what it means to them.
2. Front-line managers provide regular performance feedback, recognize employee contributions, listen and respond to employees, enable employees to act in ways that contribute to organizational goals and provide development opportunities.
3. The communication system provides timely information, 2-way communication channels, and multiple channels to facilitate learning and sharing of best practices (especially social media); and helps employees understand the marketplace and how their jobs align with organizational goals.
We’ve long known these drivers, yet the employee communication paradox persists, due in part to four barriers. First, the core of management–control and directives–hasn’t changed much in the past century, despite the lip service given to the value of empowerment. Too many managers and leaders still view communication as a one-way, top-down process of message injection, so they focus on the messages they send rather than the responses they receive.
Second, some leaders and practitioners get caught up in tactics at the expense of strategy. In a busy world they rush to act quickly and decisively, focus on messages, and substitute memory for thinking. But as military strategist Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Third, organizations sometimes or often confuse a lot of talk, numerous meetings, mountains of paperwork, and a torrent of one-way communication efforts for real action. This simply reinforces the meaningless of decisions that aren’t enacted. Fourth, changing behaviors is difficult for everyone, and more so for senior leaders who are used to winning and who have succeeded based on their current behaviors. But change at the top is crucial because leaders are at the center of effective internal communication. Everyone watches what leaders do, what they say and what they reward.
Of course, some companies have successfully moved from knowing to doing. Some focused on organizational culture and leadership demographics to do so (Whirlpool). Others linked the workplace to the marketplace for employees (FedEx, Southwest Air), or linked efforts to quality programs like Six Sigma (GE). Still others successfully brought company values to life (Men’s Wearhouse, Recreational Equipment, Starbuck’s), or appealed to employees’ intrinsic motivations (3M, Google, IBM, Best Buy).
Though research helps us understand the key drivers of effective employee communication, it tells us very little about how to move from knowing to doing. This is the critical gap in employee communication research today. We need insightful studies that reveal how to convince otherwise reluctant or ineffective front-line managers and leaders to change behaviors, change mindsets and build company cultures for communication. It’s a daunting task, but the payoffs for doing so are enormous: more engagement, more trust and superior company performance.
Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., is the Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. He also serves as a board member of IPR and The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations in the College.