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Communicating Effectively

Getting the best from your staff starts with making the right connections with employees. Here are 10 tips for effective leadership communication.

This article accompanies What's Keeping You Up?

Thursday, September 2, 2010
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Charles Dickens had it right -- these are the best of times and the worst of times.

These days, many organizations seem to be coming up for air, while others remain in recovery mode. Both are relentlessly protecting their assets from "the year that was." Meanwhile, the all-important people asset is in a critical state.

With many employees in wait-and-see mode (wondering what's going to hit next or curious about outside opportunities), and with organizations in dire need for more engaged workers who can do more with less, the pressure continues to mount for human resource leaders.

This is a defining moment for HR to elevate its impact by focusing on how HR leaders communicate with employees, and helping other leaders in your organization be the best communicators they can be.

Whether communicating with senior leaders or front-line individual contributors, HR executives have the power to create real, meaningful connections with employees to positively impact engagement and to drive them to action -- to maintain, if not drive, productivity and minimize the disruptions that come with change.

Now's the time to make sure communicating with employees stays a top priority on HR teams and across the organization.

Talk Value

The reality is there needs to be more talking. While many organizations had to make organization and benefits-related changes recently, only 14 percent of the organizations are explaining what the "new deal" or employee value proposition is to their employees, according to a 2010 study by Towers Watson. Employee-engagement scores are on the decline, too.

But, organizations that communicate effectively with employees are four times more likely to report high levels of employee engagement versus those that communicate less effectively, according to Towers Watson. And effort counts: Organizations that showed improvement in communication effectiveness are associated with a 16-percent increase in market value.

In some ways, not acknowledging the 'elephant' in the room may be even worse than saying 'no comment' externally. When cut off from the big picture and how they fit, employees presume guilt and the worst, even in cultures where there's a tremendous sense of pride and a hearty helping of trust.

Now more than ever, we need leadership.

I used to work for a manager who said, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.' This is a litmus test for leadership, which means sharing with employees what we know and what we don't know. This is a time for courageous conversations and straightforward communications.

Specifically, this is the time for HR executives to encourage leaders to talk about how the organization is positioned for the future and/or how changes are being made to set the business up for future success. It's also critical to clearly outline specific expectations for employees and what's needed of them.

As leaders, you should:

* Set the tone and cast a shadow;

* Control the flow of information;

* Create dialogue; and

* Be the central hub of change, quality, efficiency and innovation.

Here are 10 tips for effective leadership communication that HR leaders can apply today (and every day):

Communicate with integrity: Tell the truth always and without exception.

Make time to communicate and make the most of that time: Set up regular face-to-face communication opportunities.

Remember the basics: Who, what, where, when, why and how.

Use stories: The right anecdote can be worth a thousand theories and facts, and can reinforce the outcomes, behaviors and actions you want to see.

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Build trust and credibility: Be visible and approachable; engage your employees openly, fully and early on (Tip: the more change that's happening and the busier you are, the more you need to be communicating.).

Hold a mirror to yourself: As you prepare to share updates and/or tough news, consider how you would like to be communicated with if you were in the employees' shoes.

Outline expectations clearly: It's the fastest way to find out if employees are engaged and on the same page as you, and if they're not, it's a safe way to clarify expectations.

Don't wait to communicate until you have all the answers: By then it will be too late -- if you wait, someone is going to speak on your behalf and fill the information vacuum whether the information is right or wrong.

Provide context and relevance: That allows employees to understand the meaning behind what's being said and understand what it means to them; have a message platform of core messages and actions.

Be honest, human, empathetic and show you care: It's OK to let employees know that it's hard to have to deliver tough news; do what you can to make them feel comforted, and let the staff that remain mourn the losses of co-workers (Remember that today's employees may be tomorrow's prospects, clients, bosses or future job candidates.)

Talking about the state of the business -- whether good news or grim -- makes good business sense and allows employees to avoid significant distractions at a time when a steady hand at the wheel is needed.

Now more than ever, employees need to stay focused and to want to know where they stand. To do this, they need the right direction and information from their leaders.

David Grossman, APR, ABC, PRSA Fellow, is an expert in leadership communication and internal communication. He is the author of You Can't NOT Communicate and the founder and president of The Grossman Group.

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