Workplaces Need Continuing Dialogue

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Employee communication is not a product, such as a newsletter or intranet, or a static event, like a staff meeting or annual survey, according to Linda Dulye, president and founder of Dulye & Co., a New York-based change management consultancy specializing in communications. It’s a continuing process that requires two-way feedback.

Yet for whatever reason, many organizations limit employee communication by scripting top-down communications tightly and sanitizing the findings of employee attitude surveys. That’s a mistake, according to Dulye.

“People will give you feedback if they believe it will be respectfully received and acted upon,” she said in a webinar held Jan. 25, 2011, in conjunction with the Detroit chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). But such feedback should be shared “widely and quickly,” she added.

Dulye suggested several ways to improve trust, morale, engagement and productivity, such as by increasing employee involvement in communication efforts, organizational transparency and the frequency of feedback gathering.

Lunch with the Boss

Dulye said that some organizations host periodic “lunch with the boss” events in which high-potential employees are invited to a fancy meal in a venue frequented by the C-suite.

But she said that a few simple changes can increase the engagement level and dialogue exchanged before, during and after such events. For example, the food, drink and venue can be simplified to increase the comfort level of participants, and the seating can be arranged to encourage dialogue. To spur dialogue further, participants can be given a few business-focused questions they should come prepared to discuss during the meal. And they can be asked what they thought about the event afterwards in order to make improvements to future events.

Leadership Walk-Arounds

Dulye said Rolls-Royce implemented a weekly leadership “walk-around” program in response to employee requests for regular visits by leaders to their work areas. Under the program, senior leaders are expected to make scheduled weekly visits to designated, mapped out zones of the company on a rotating basis. An employee liaison serves as a guide during each visit, introducing team members in the work area. They talk about what the group is working on. Leaders are expected to record and share five things they learned during each session and to make arrangements to call in to talk to employees if they are unable to be present because of travel.

When leader participation in the walk-around program began to lag, the company—at the suggestion of employees—decided to survey employees after each leader’s visit and to post the feedback results for all to see. That solved the problem.

Dulye said that employee survey results showed a marked increase in trust and morale following the implementation of the program.

Other Ways to Improve Communication

PDA-free meetings: If meeting participants are more engaged with their electronic devices than with fellow attendees, Dulye said, organizations should start collecting these devices before each meeting (after taping names to each) and storing them until the end of the meeting.

Listening time: Dulye said that two-way feedback can be encouraged during any meeting by limiting the length and detail of formal presentations and designating a portion of each meeting as “listening time.” And if a meeting facilitator asks “are there any questions?” and receives only silence and blank stares in response, it’s a sign that further improvements are needed, she added.

Leader access: Leaders will receive less feedback from employees if they are surrounded constantly by an entourage, hidden behind closed doors or scripted at every employee event. If questions are screened in advance, for example, or there is a time limit to employee questions, it is likely that communication efforts need to be re-evaluated, according to Dulye.

“Employees and managers want to see their leaders,” she explained. “Employees won’t give up constructive ideas and views to someone they perceive to be a stranger.”

Dulye recommended the use of employee action committees—ad hoc groups of front-line employees who are trusted by their peers and comfortable speaking up when they need to—to support all communication efforts. Members of such groups focus on capturing and relaying the kind of unfiltered feedback that surveys often can’t capture, such as what people said 15 minutes after an executive leaves a meeting.

She noted that HR professionals can help set the stage for increased feedback by building communication competency expectations into the performance management process. For example, managers can be expected to demonstrate skill in:

  • Reinforcing key organizational messages.
  • Providing context for changes and decisions.
  • Facilitating open dialogues within and between work groups, whether they are local or virtual.
  • Listening to and learning from the voices of the workforce.
  • Responding to and acting on direct feedback.
  • Modeling organizational messages with words and actions.
  • Organizations can help build such competencies by offering leaders brief tutorials on various communication techniques such as how to ask open-ended questions and learning to recognize employees who speak up.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.