10 Ways to Improve Employee Communication

More than nine in 10 managers rate themselves as good or excellent communicators, but only seven in 10 employees agree with them.

When employees receive regular performance reviews, nine out of 10 express faith in senior management, more than five in 10 are optimistic about the company’s future, and more than seven in 10 say they are loyal to their employers, according to Randstad North America’s “2003 Employee Review.” The national study, conducted by RoperASW through 2,862 in-depth telephone interviews, also found that when employees receive regular information about financial performance, seven in 10 say it’s important to them; and nine in 10 employees say they’re less likely to leave because they received such information.

The bottom line: Workers engaged in a regular dialogue with management about their own performance and the company’s performance are more satisfied with virtually every aspect of their jobs. They’re more loyal. They’re more innovative. And they’re more likely to stay put. Randstad’s study tells us that 83 percent of employees who ranked their bosses as excellent communicators say that morale is excellent or good where they work.

However, more than nine in 10 bosses say they keep employees informed about changes at work, but only 74 percent of employees say they’re told what’s going on. Ninety-three percent of managers say they answer employees’ tough questions honestly, but some of them must be whispering, because only 70 percent of employees say they’re getting straight answers. In fact, fewer than half of respondents (42 percent) say the boss tells them the whole story. Thirty percent of surveyed employees think the boss just wants them to parrot the “company line” rather than voice their honest opinions.

Making a Better Connection

Employees are generally quick to point out that effective communication requires a lot more than an impromptu meeting or a blizzard of memos or e-mails. It takes constant effort and attention to face-to-face, two-way communication. Even in today’s high-tech business atmosphere, face-to-face chats still beat e-mail and voice mail hands down.

Particularly when it comes to learning about important changes at work, nine out of 10 employees say group or individual face-to-face meetings are the preferred method of communication. Only 5 percent of employees think e-mailing the news is OK, and 1 percent prefer to learn about changes through voice mail.


Communications Tip:
Curb the Urge to Have the Last Word

A major challenge for successful people—such as leaders—is knowing when to stop “being right” or “trying to win” especially when in situations where employees are offering up suggestions or ideas for improvement. Research shows that the more leaders achieve, the more they want to be right; the urge becomes part of their personality traits.

Talking about leaders in his Fast Company article, “Adding Value—But at What Cost?” (August 2003), Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership, explains: “At work meetings, we want our position to prevail.”

The point Goldsmith makes in the article is when employees and colleagues are making suggestions and coming up with great ideas, don’t squash their thoughts by always having the last word, by always trying to make the idea or point better. The problem with doing this, says Goldsmith, is that while leaders’ thoughts “may have improved the idea by five percent, they’ve reduced the employee’s commitment to executing it by 30 percent because they’ve taken away the person’s ownership of the idea.

“Therein lies the fallacy of added value: Whatever is gained in the form of a better idea may be lost six times over in the employee’s diminished enthusiasm for the concept. One of my top clients said, ‘Unfortunately, at the CEO level, my suggestions get taken as orders, even if I don’t want them to.’ ”

Goldsmith’s advice to leaders is to be careful about how you hand out encouragement. “If you find yourself saying, ‘Great idea, but … ’ try cutting your response off at ‘idea.’ Even better, take a breath before you speak and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is worthwhile,” writes Goldsmith. “One of my clients said that once he got into the habit, he realized that at least half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth saying.”

Improving two-way communications can be as simple as setting up suggestion boxes or employee hotlines or re-instituting “management by walking around.” The key is to solicit employees’ thinking on issues as they’re evolving—and to respond to them. If you disagree with employee ideas and suggestions, say why. If you incorporate them, even better. In both cases, you’re ahead of the curve in building loyalty.

When employers implement workers’ ideas that result in positive change, 78 percent of employees say morale is excellent or good. In companies that do not take action based on employee feedback, only one in four employees says morale is excellent or good.

The data show an astonishing connection between corporate success and the boss’ communications style. In companies currently hiring more workers—indicating business growth—fully three-quarters of the employees say that when the boss asks for their opinion, he or she really wants input, not just a rote recitation of the company line. By comparison, when companies are in the process of laying people off, only 47 percent of employees say the boss really wants to hear their opinions.

Good two-way communications programs that include listening to employees—and acting on their suggestions—also create tremendous goodwill. Ninety-seven percent of employees who give top ratings to how well their employers communicate say they feel important and valued, compared with only 14 percent who say their employer is a poor communicator. In companies that experience positive changes resulting from employee suggestions, 94 percent of employees say they feel important and valued, but only 41 percent feel that way when the boss doesn’t ask for their feedback.

Results of Randstad’s “2003 Employee Review” suggest 10 tips for improving employee communications:

  1. Be fast or be last. In these tumultuous times, don’t sit on information, whether it’s good or bad. Seven out of 10 employees say they want to receive even partial information as decisions are being made even if things might change in the future. Be quick to let employees know about changes.
  2. Cultivate the grapevine. Don’t let rumors about workplace issues get out of control. While 83 percent of employers think workers first hear about major changes from the grapevine, 46 percent of employees say they get it from the grapevine.
  3. Keep it simple. Employees want clear and easy-to-understand information about what’s happening. Clarity is critical. During periods of change, half of employees say that things at work seem unorganized. Don’t try to spin bad news into innocuous twaddle.
  4. Tell the truth. These days, instead of wondering if the boss is capable, workers wonder if the boss is honest. While seven in 10 supervisors say most people in business are honest, only half of employees agree with that assessment. Expect employees to ask the tough questions. Be prepared to tell them the truth.
  5. Tell the whole truth. You can’t hold back pieces of information that might not be well accepted at the time in hopes that later on employees will be in a better mood to accept bad news. They’ll resent not hearing the whole story at one time.
  6. Provide a road map. Employees want to hear where you think the company is headed. While 83 percent of employers say they give workers that kind of information, only 68 percent of employees report receiving it.
  7. Say something good once in a while. Only 67 percent of employees say management communicates the good news as well as the bad news. Workers want to hear the good news from the boss as much as they’re willing to take the bad.
  8. Get personal. Whatever the news is that you’re providing, employees want to know what it means to them.
  9. Give details. If the company is facing really hard times, be clear about how layoffs will be handled. Fear is not a motivator. Only 32 percent of employees and 26 percent of employers say people work harder when they are worried about their jobs. Open and honest communication in times of crisis or uncertainty is crucial.
  10. Listen. Take the time to gather input from your people. Employees want to be heard. When companies implement employees’ suggestions, 78 percent of employees say morale is excellent or good.

A key to improving employee morale and loyalty—two attitudes crucial to productivity and business success—is communication.

The best defense in the ongoing war for improved productivity is to move now to retain the talent and experience you’ve invested in and to make those employees your best allies when it’s time to recruit new talent. Improving how the company communicates to its employees can make significant differences in their perceptions of productivity as well as the way they think about the boss, their outlook for the company and their loyalty.


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