Working with the Volume Off…Ignoring Content to See Clearly Overcoming the attention deficit syndrome via strategic internal communications and change management.

An overwhelming byproduct of today’s digital reality is the volume of content produced for consumption. Unfortunately, most of the information is not relevant to the intended audience. This results in a whole lot of waste and missed opportunity for individual benefit. This is particularly true when addressing employees. When an organization fails to recognize it is not engaging its workforce and the content it is producing is not hitting the mark, two things are wasted: information and opportunity. Just when organizations have made improving relationships with employees a priority, they’ve encountered an interesting, sobering reality – employees aren’t listening.

People today are choosing to work without listening. The key to improving their awareness and understanding is to watch what’s happening around them to discern what’s real and authentic. Through the years, the necessity for leaders to strengthen relationships with employees has risen to the point that it is now a pillar of competitive advantage. Today, an uninformed workforce can spell disaster for any organization attempting to navigate through the treacherous waters of global business. To that end, while internal communications has been fast becoming a strategic means to change and drive an organization, the result has mostly been a flurry of activity around tactics, content and mechanisms. This results in a flood of information raining down on employees, most of which lacks the relevance and context necessary to affect behavior and performance.

The sobering truth is that leaders believe they are “communicating.” Yet, while communicators are certainly keeping busy with the tactics of communicating, employees have responded by tuning out the “noise” and focusing only on the picture – that is, responding only to what they see happening around them. In reality, what organizational leadership needs to accomplish in order to drive change is to capture employee attention and ensure every person in the organization understands that they largely control the company’s success or failure, as it is determined by how every employee thinks, what they focus on, and how they execute their responsibilities on a daily basis.

These days, employees find themselves defending against information that lacks context, depth and meaning. A number of studies have found that employees attribute ill health and stress directly to the crushing amount of information they are expected to handle, resulting in low job satisfaction. Alas, despite everything we’ve learned about strategic communications over the past two decades, many corporations can be compared to stubborn patients who refuse to see their doctors despite knowing better. What’s worse in this case is that the communications counselor is too often compliant, willing to continue focusing on the latest technology (e.g., blogs, quarterly financial announcements and corporate videos) while the organization’s very viability is under threat.

Just as some baseball fans watch their favorite team with the volume off to escape the incessant noise posing as commentary and insights, employees are watching, but choosing not to listen. They look for visual cues and pay attention to what’s going on around them, as company information raises questions rather than answers them.

For instance, employees may hear or read in a company publication about a new initiative that realigns the way things are done. But then they see leadership or their managers operating in the same manner as they always have. What’s the real message for them? Is the company embarking on a new paradigm or not? “Probably not,” employees say to one another. The result is widespread cynicism instead of the enthusiasm and commitment that business organizations need in order to grow and thrive. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that employees are working with the volume off? For many, it has become a self-defense mechanism, tuning it all out because they have no choice if they are to get their jobs done. Yet, there’s no denying that there are critical messages that your employees must receive – particularly the critical need for employees to understand, embody and act on the company’s strategy. A startling fact uncovered in recent surveys indicates that a low percentage of the workforce, including managers and supervisors, understands the company’s strategy, and that leadership is aghast at that fact.

This knowledge deficiency among managers is a serious problem because these are the very people who must drive the strategy.

So, how do you cut through the clutter and noise to ensure that the messages are received, understood and acted on?

To capture employees’ attention when the volume is off, we have to adopt a “discover” approach rather than a “sell” approach, meaning the most effective communication is when people discover for themselves leadership’s strategic intent. In this regard, communications can help employees experience the necessary changes and the benefits of new corporate initiatives needed to drive organizational strategy. Initiatives, in this vein, are owned by employees rather than viewed as an ever changing “program of the month.”

In the example below, we’ve outlined the difference between a discover vs. sell approach for an organization introducing a new corporate strategy:

A sell approach addresses employees as a homogeneous audience and typically includes the following actions:

  • All employees are given theme-adapted, visual posters, coffee mugs and/or screensavers
  • CEO sends an email to all employees and an article about the new strategy is posted on the company intranet
  • Information slides are given to all managers telling them what to say to their teams
  • Cascading of information is expected

The discover approach allows people to engage in the effort on their terms and typically includes:

  • Sessions with leaders and management detailing marketplace realities, competitive issues, etc
  • Analysis and insights on employee attitudes, issues and behaviors
  • Cadenced communications peppered with information on the marketplace, competition and its impact on the company, relevant to employee reality
  • Briefings on strategy with managers, supervisors and union leaders
  • CEO involvement
  • Focus on plans and budgets in line with the new strategy
  • “Immersion days” for all employees by function to make strategy and the business relevant.

In the latter, more effective approach, communications provides context for decisions. In that sense, all communications should answer the following questions for employees:

  • How are managers conveying the initiative?
  • What are employees’ understanding?
  • Are there pathways to action?
  • What does leadership need to do to ensure progress?
  • How can the organization better collaborate for success?

From an internal communications standpoint, the goal of engaging employees today rests with influencing what employees see rather than merely the messages they hear. We must guide employees to understand and believe through experiential techniques – discover vs. sell. And we must encourage employee engagement with the company on an emotional level. Let employees see how senior management shares the challenge of cost containment and cost reduction. Let them see how leadership treats customers with respect. Let them feel passionate about the brand. Let them see how the organization handles crises, puts values into action, and translates strategy into financial performance.

Internal communications is no longer about messaging and events. It’s about discovery. Involvement. Feedback. Conversation.

Remember, in a digital world, people are doing more looking than listening!

Gary F. Grates is a globally renowned, recognized, and respected expert in change management communications, employee engagement and corporate strategy execution counseling senior leaders and Boards of Directors from global organizations in the areas of leadership transition, M&A integration, crisis, labor-management relations, organizational effectiveness, employee engagement, function optimization, internal communications improvement, strategy implementation, and change management.

He is a Principal at W20 Group, the parent company of WCG, Twist Marketing, W20 Ventures, and NextWorks.  This network of independent, complementary public relations, marketing, and communications counseling firms focused on integrated business solutions in the areas product supremacy, innovation, change, organizational effectiveness, and growth for the world’s leading organizations.

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