"Masterful Messaging: Five Ways to Improve Your Organizational Communications" originally appeared on Forbes.com.
For any organization’s leadership, effectively communicating with employees is perhaps the most important “big picture” skill to master. After all, if the head can’t clearly tell the body what to do, the entity as a whole will wind up stumbling around and, sooner or later, falling to the ground.
Yet so many organizations pay little specific attention to their internal communications. Sometimes leaders simply assume that, if everyone speaks and reads the same language, there’s no reason to think miscommunications will occur. Other times, communication policies were laid down years ago and they’ve become outdated.
If you’ve paid little heed to your approach to organizational communications, now’s a good time to take a step back, assess and, where necessary, implement some improvements. Here are five ways to communicate more clearly.
1. Start at the top.
Senior leaders must set the tone by being visible, accessible and open with employees. They must serve as walking, talking, writing examples of clear, candid communication.
Unfortunately, this is often where many organizations’ communication breakdowns begin. If upper management isolates itself and reaches out only through cold, “corporate speak” memos and emails, important messages will likely get ignored or misunderstood. In such cases, middle management often must “translate” communications, which turns into a game of telephone that leaves employees confused or disgruntled.
Determining whether senior leadership isn’t getting the job done can be difficult. Someone in upper management usually needs to champion the cause of organizational communications and convince others to commit to an improvement plan. Such a plan might start with engaging a consultant to assess internal messaging and then provide training — both to upper and middle management.
2. Understand your audience.
Do you know who works for you? Well, of course you do — but do you really know them? Over time, the demographics of an organization can change and the preferred communication methods and styles of employees along with it.
For instance, volumes have been written at this point about millennials and how they communicate differently from the Gen Xers who preceded them and certainly the baby boomers before that. And, don’t look now, but Generation Z is entering the workforce as well. These are young people who grew up completely immersed in social media.
Use objective measurement techniques (surveys, focus groups, 360-degree feedback) to take an ongoing pulse of your workforce. Paint a full picture of your organization’s people and what makes them tick. Then align company messaging and communication channels with these preferences.
3. Tell the whole story, consistently.
Among the most common complaints from employees is that their employers try to spin communications by cherry-picking certain facts and leaving out much of the nuance. As a result, trust suffers while rumors and conspiracy theories may rear their ugly heads.
Another common complaint is that employees hear or read slightly differing stories and directives, maybe first from upper management and then from middle management. Or they notice that their employer’s message changes over the months or from quarter to quarter, leaving them to wonder where the organization’s priorities really lie.
Organizations can address both foibles through an effective, well-planned communications process. Discuss each company-wide announcement thoroughly and reach a consensus regarding a full range of pertinent facts and additional information. Choose the ideal medium (or media) to communicate the message, ensuring that — no matter how the information is conveyed — it’s consistent under all formats. Last, when issuing updates, double check that the communication remains consistent with previous messaging.
4. Differentiate between verbal and written communication.
Given how easy it is to transmit written information these days, some managers may rely too much on emails, texts and instant messaging. As most of us have experienced by now, words on a screen are easily misinterpreted and taken the wrong way.
Generally, supervisors should communicate important personal information to employees — especially corrections and criticism — verbally and, where possible, face-to-face. This goes for positive feedback, too. Compliments and news of awards or a promotion tend to have greater impact emotionally when expressed in person.
Of course, you must put formal disciplinary communications in writing for purposes of documentation. And memos and emails are still a necessary tool in delivering messages that affect departments or the entire organization. For these purposes, bear in mind that the written word carries more weight in a legal and historical sense than the spoken word.
When committing words to paper or a digital file, they’re made permanent (unless, of course, shredded or deleted, which is another subject unto itself). So, when generating written communications, take extra care to be completely accurate or to issue timely corrections when mistakes occur. What’s more, ensure communications are free of errors in punctuation, spelling and grammar.
5. Offer ample opportunities for dialogue.
Communication, as the cliché goes, is a two-way street. Or at least it should be. Some executives and managers may assume their door is always open, but their behavior or the organizational culture may discourage employees from walking through it and asking questions or giving feedback.
This is another problem that you can address through regular employee surveys — particularly anonymous ones. You may be communicating with staff well for the most part, but if they can’t talk back, there’s still a major shortcoming in your messaging.
One obvious place to encourage dialogue is in your performance evaluations. Be sure supervisors are setting aside time during these meetings to discuss the issue of organizational communications and solicit improvement ideas. You might also reevaluate whether and how department meetings are being conducted and how often supervisors are interacting with their staff members outside of performance evaluations.
Review and refine.
Many organizations, particularly businesses, spend a substantial amount of time and resources perfecting their external messaging. But don’t overlook the power and importance of clearly communicating with your own employees. It’s an organizational skill-set that may occasionally need review and refinement.
POST WRITTEN BY
Founder of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration and Member of the Forbes Coaches Council
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.