Last week I posted a poll on LinkedIn asking if employees could improve one thing about their company, what would it be. 47% of respondents said communication. Establishing an effective communication strategy is key to driving employee engagement and morale. Too little communication, and employees can feel disconnected and alone, too much communication and employees can feel micro-managed. Getting communication right, is especially important now, as more companies explore remote and hybrid work. Leader can improve communication by focusing on improving employee engagement, providing psychological safety, developing a written communication plan, and soliciting feedback from employees on how to continuously improve communication.
Drive Employee Engagement
An effective communication strategy starts with employee engagement. If an employee is not engaged with the work that they are doing, no level of communication will be the right. You can engage your employees by helping them to understand how important their role is to the success of the organization. Many times, employees struggle to see how their contribution plays into the bigger picture, which leaves them feeling uninspired and unappreciated. As the leader, you can drive engagement by helping employees to find fulfillment in the work that they are doing.
For example, when I was the Manager of Franchise Marketing and Recruiting, one of the core responsibilities of my team was to find and screen for qualified leads. As a team, we spent time discussing how our efforts to find qualified leads helped us to contribute to the company’s overall mission to be the world’s leader of convenience. In addition, we talked about the positive impact we were making in the lives of individuals that decided to Franchise with us. Members of the team were able to take personal satisfaction in knowing that they played a pivot role in helping small business owner pursue their dreams, while also supporting the company’s vision for being a leader in convenience. This sense of purpose, helped to support high levels of engagement with the team.
Create Psychological Safety
The second best-practice to improve communication effectiveness is to create psychological safety for employees. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking (1). This can be done by treating your employees with dignity and respect. When employees feel respected, they are more likely to communicate concerns to you. This will allow you to better understand what your employees value, and how current actions or events are impacting them. This information can also help you to acquire empathy, which is essential for building strong relationship. In providing answers to your employee's questions and acting on their feedback you will build trust and rapport. Listening also puts you in a better position to influence employees when your goals or points of view do not align. After hearing your employee's concerns, you are unable to provide insights on why it is in the company's best interest to do things as they are being done.
One of the biggest reasons that employees are not more open with their employers is that they fear the consequences of being transparent with their opinions. They are concerned that voicing unpopular opinions will impact their status within the company. As a leader, you can create an environment where employees know that they can respectfully share their point of view or ask a question without losing creditability. Organizations are stronger when they leverage the diversity of thought of their employees. By showing dignity and respect, you create the psychological safety necessary for an inclusive workplace.
Develop a Written Communication Plan
A third best-practice for creating an effective communication strategy is to have a written communication plan. This communication plan should define when, where, what and how information should be shared. Creating a shared understanding around how employees should communicate with each other provides a starting point for effective communication within an organization. When questions around overcommunication or under communication arise, members of the organization can evaluate whether the problem is the execution of the communication plan, or the plan itself. This is powerful, because it establishes a shared expectation of what should be happening, along with a way of tweak expectations if individuals feel that current plan is not sufficient.
Written communication plans should be detailed, but not all encompassing. It is impossible to define all the potential reason and ways that people will communicate within the organization. The intent of a written communication plan is to provide guidelines, not to define unbreakable rules. The communication plan should be both global and local. From a global standpoint, expectations around when key meetings should be held, can help provide a predictable cadence for business. Meetings such as business and performance reviews should be scheduled at the global level to help to establish the importance of those meetings. Leadership should also provide guidance on preferred methods of communication. A famous example of this is when Jeff Bezos outlawed the use of power points presentations at Amazon. How we communicate, impacts what we communicate, so it is important to be thoughtful about the benefits and drawbacks of different communication tools. Other parts of the communication plan should be developed at the local level. For example, as a leader, when do you want your employees to text you information, instead of calling you. What type of information should be held for one-on-one meeting verses brought up in group discussions. Providing clarity around when, where, what and how information should be communicated, can help to ensure that the appropriate amount of communication is occurring.
Solicit Feedback on Communication Plan
The final best-practice is to solicit feedback from members of your organization. Everyone’s needs for communication are different. The more you understand their needs, the better able you will be to help identify solutions. When I became a Zone Vice President of Operations, some of the biggest concerns that I heard from Field Consultants were that we had too many meetings, priorities seemed to change every week, and that they were overwhelmed by non-value-added activities and communications. There concerns were all linked to poor communication. There was a lack of clarity around our zone’s mission, and there was not much discipline around how or when information was shared with the field team.
This set my leadership team and me on a mission to streamline our communications and ensure that we helped Field Consultants to have the information they needed to effectively do their job. We did this in four primary ways. First, we shifted all zone wide written communication to be distributed through Microsoft Teams. Microsoft Teams allowed us to create a library of shared content that everyone could use on demand. We worked with our support and administration partners to develop channels on Microsoft Teams to make information easier to find. Next, we encouraged Field Consultants to post questions on Microsoft Teams. We found that many times our support team would field the same question from different Field Consultants. To accelerate the answering of questions, we asked Field Consultants to post questions on a shared space where the support team could provide answers that were visible to everyone. Next, we defined expectations around communication. We let the team know that at a minimum we expected them to review emails daily and Microsoft Teams weekly. We also communicated that if something was sent via email, that it was urgent and that we were looking for the issue to be addressed within 48 hours. If something was communicated on Microsoft Teams, it was more informational, and we expected it to be reviewed and acted upon weekly. Finally, we would periodically do polls and surveys to gage how we were doing with improving communication. Overtime we heard a lot of positive feedback around the changes that we had made. All these changes were rooted in feedback that we received from Field Consultants. They were the best guide for solving our communication opportunities.
Effective communication strategies are what truly sets organization apart. The quicker you can gather and act on urgent information, the better you are able to serve customers. The fewer times that you must repeat a message to align everyone on a strategy, the more time you will have for executing the strategy. The time you take to build engagement, create psychological safety, establish a written communication plan, and solicit feedback on that plan, will improve organizational productivity by creating an inclusive workplace that effectively communicates information up and down the organization. Your employees are the foundation of the value that your organization creates. The better able you are to ensure they have the information they need to work, and that you have the information you need to lead, the more successful your business will be.
Dorian Cunion is an Executive Business Coach with your Path Coaching and Consulting. He specializes in coaching service for managers, executives and small business owner.
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Psychological Safety – Amy C. Edmondson. (2022). Amycedmondson.com. https://amycedmondson.com/psychological-safety/