Are You Listening?

Internal communication that starts at the bottom can launch your business to the top

Back Article Dec 18, 2015 By Gordon Fowler

“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.” That memorable yet stinging line from Meryl Streep’s mean-boss character in The Devil Wears Prada is legend for managerial bad behavior. We all chuckled at the movie’s plotline. Who could be so insensitive to their employees?

Sorry to say, but every well-meaning small business owner is capable of inflicting wounds that stifle drive, trust, employee engagement and motivation. Maybe not as blatantly as calling out incompetence, but neglect and disrespect through lack of communication de-motivates too. Worst of all, we don’t even know we are doing it.

It starts innocently: In most startups and small businesses, top-down communication happens naturally. With just a few dream-big comrades involved, new ideas happen spontaneously, discussion comes naturally and decisions are made accordingly. However, as a typical company grows, work becomes more targeted and specialized, and employees may be on the road or at different locations. Communication is still top-down, but managers have different priorities to communicate based on their particular silo, and they have different styles of communication.  

Often the message varies or official communication lays dormant. Meanwhile, unauthorized employees seize the rumor mill and fill the communication void — whether they know anything or not. Remember that initial natural flow of communication? It is gone. Decisions are now made in a black hole and vital employee input is missing.

So, are internal communications one more to-do when time permits? Delay at your own risk. Consider this: A recent poll by Gallup showed that 70 percent of U.S. employees are not engaged at work. Staggering! The time to remedy the situation is now, with what some call creative internal communications. Practice this art form and see your company grow.

Try a bottom-up internal communications strategy. Open the doors and recognize that each employee brings their own perspective to your business. Consider a bottom-up internal communication model where employees are free to contribute their ideas and opinions.

For instance, take a big-decision scenario such as restructuring departments. A bottom-up approach would entail a reverse-pyramid method where low-level employees are consulted first and an informal two-way dialog occurs. With their insight, a murky restructuring idea eventually takes focus. Employees feel empowered for having input and, inevitably, the resulting plan is more likely to succeed.

Keep in mind: This won’t work if leaders don’t actually listen. Infamously, NASA learned this lesson in the most devastating manner. Remember the Challenger explosion and the famous O-rings? Despite repeated urgings to not launch from those who knew best, agency management — under pressure to deliver civilian space travel to justify cost overruns — ignored the warnings. We all remember the devastating consequences: the death of a crew of seven, which included teacher Christa McAuliffe, in a fiery explosion that set NASA back years. If only they had listened.

Don’t let a NASA-style snafu happen to you. Let’s get back to that restructuring departments scenario: You’ve engaged the majority of your work force first. Take their input up the chain and share your initial findings with the mid-level group. They will be impressed with your willingness to be thorough and anxious to participate. Once you take your plan to top management, you will be armed with hard facts and anecdotal back up. Now, decisions are limited to the logistics of the rollout, not square-one rehashing. With this bottom-up method, your gut instincts have metastasized into a company-wide, single-focused effort where everyone is in sync and on board.

Office meetings don’t have to be dreadful: The bottom-up communication style may require even more meetings, so make them productive for everyone. Mix it up a bit by employing a few techniques. I know business owners that require everyone to leave their department hats at the door and gather for the sake of the entire company. When everyone understands the challenges of every department, unity happens. And who knows who is going to have a good idea when discourse is encouraged?

Some leaders I know even let employees vote on an issue, with the boss’s vote coming last — not for decision-making purposes (that is always the boss’s prerogative) but for a clear consensus of where people stand. Voting can also reduce “I told you so” recriminations whispered if a plan doesn’t work.

Leadership can also make real inroads into silencing the disgruntled by taking those office meetings out of the office. Camaraderie is essential in any well-run business and is built on trust and friendship. Shared experiences will result in improved communication, increased efficiency, expanded trust and willingness to cooperate. Research from Gallup reveals that close friendships at work cause a 50-percent increase in employee satisfaction, while having a close friend at work increased the likelihood of engagement seven-fold. Need another benefit of office outings? Leadership can learn what makes their employees tick, and even show themselves as real people too.

The bottom-up communication style doesn’t mean that every move requires buy-in throughout the entire company. But even everyday decisions shouldn’t be made on the fly. Refrain from telling Manager A to proceed after a pop-up meeting in the hallway without a checklist in your mind of who will be affected and who needs to know. Even seemingly inconsequential actions need a mini rollout plan. So often a brainstorm is misunderstood as marching orders, and it’s anyone’s guess who is offended because they were left out of the loop.

Vet new communication tools. Every office structure uses technology to help the communication process. But from instant messages to email, social sharing apps, video conferencing and intranets, communication tools often fall short of their intended purpose. Often the quest for the perfect communication tool is subject to old-school, bottom-down directives. Research conducted by Softchoice, an IT provider for thousands of organizations across the U.S., found employees tend to ignore new office communication and collaboration tools unless they are involved in the selection process.

So stay true to the bottom-up strategy when considering any new communication tools. Long before any technology investment is made, get input from the troops: Ask them to consider your company’s unique culture, how they like to work and what they need to be productive. Finding the right technology fit is the pathway to maximum communication and more efficiency.

Perfect the subject line. While on the quest to find the right social business tool, take a hard look at your standard email communication. Salesforce reports that 48 percent of employees generally don’t open internal communication emails, so obviously some of your employees don’t either. Consider jazzing up the subject line and use labeling to create instant identity and segmentation.

What works well is a 3-pronged approach. With this system, every internal communication email subject line is labeled as action, decision or FYI.  If personal style dictates only an occasional glance at inner-office communication, at least each message contains a direct indication of what’s inside and is more likely to be sorted and read.

Work will be completed more efficiently by organizations with leaders that listen, empower staff to come together for the betterment of the entire company and then communicate mightily the exciting results. Give it a try.