Open up your communications

25 Sep 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

If we accept that the best communications are heard and understood, then it follows that as internal communication practitioners we should create opportunities for staff to be heard and to better understand what’s been said to them. Why then, is there still such a resistance to opening up two-way communication channels?

As part of the internal engagement work we do, I talk to many companies about their intranet and its role in their communication programme. For most, it’s about one-way communication, letting staff know the rules, procedures, policies and other fact-based information; a repository of history and knowledge to help people do their job better, or at least in the right way. Many have a ‘news’ element, allowing the latest achievements to be shared with staff. Its function is to reinforce the right messages, stories and behaviours that support the desired culture. 

Unfortunately, there’s still not many companies that have an open forum where staff can just say what’s on their mind, ask questions, seek clarity and share ideas. Word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool and social media has found a way to utilise its power. Why then are internal communicators so scared of applying social chat approaches to their craft? Is it a fear of the tough questions? Being open to criticism? Inappropriate behaviour? Or is it just being exposed for not knowing?

Questions, comments and views are already being expressed by staff around the water-cooler, in the lunch room and right round the business. Because we can’t hear them doesn’t make them any less legitimate. In fact, going uncorrected and unchallenged allows them to grow from an isolated opinion to the accepted company-wide grass roots position. Why not then bring them out into the light where you can hear them and make them part of your communication programme? 

I’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same ‘What rubbish!” If you’ve got an intranet, add blog and comments functionality and invite staff to share whatever’s on their mind. At first staff may be nervous of the consequences but they’ll quickly catch on when they see that they can say anything. Go one step further and implement social-style platforms, like Yammer or Facebook for Business, specifically designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of thoughts, ideas and answers. 

Word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool

As communication managers our primary function moves from creators of content to facilitators of discussion. Our key goal is to listen and provide information on what’s important to our staff and to address any areas of confusion. This may go against our instinct where, rather than creating more communications, we encourage the discussion to take its natural course. You do have to get involved, however, when the facts are wrong or the opinions are detrimental to the company or individuals. 

Encourage senior leadership to participate in the discussion on an equal basis to staff, sharing thoughts and opinions. They also have a role to play in facilitating discussion by liking, commenting and encouraging what others are saying. Often it means acknowledging that they don’t know all the answers and asking staff to tell them what they think they should do.

I’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same "What rubbish!”

As we see from social media, most people know what’s acceptable discussion etiquette and play by the rules. Forums and discussions are self-governing, with groups quickly letting individuals know when their language, opinion or behaviour isn’t acceptable. Trust that this works and avoid introducing vetting, censorship or controls, as this discourages open sharing.

The beauty of this open communication environment is that staff are heard, know what’s happening around the business, have a place to get clarity and feel more engaged with the wider business. They participate in the communication process on an equal basis with leadership, leading to more open and honest dialogue. For the company, it means a much better handle on what really matters to their people and what the gaps in knowledge and understanding are. 

I’ve focused on the intranet here, but you should open up your communications across the business. Add feedback loops and discussion options to all communications when you can, favouring two-way discussion over one-way telling every time.

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