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The Big Story: Employees want more authentic communication – Axios

“Asked whether executives effectively communicate the company’s values, 85% of top leaders said yes, but only 62% of junior employees agreed [and] 40% of entry-level employees say they don’t see their CEOs ‘walk the walk.’”

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

By David Jarrard
3-minute read

It’s easy to confuse the activity of communications with the act of having successfully communicated.

Parents, pet owners, politicians and healthcare leaders know this to be true.

It’s the reason our headline – a quote from George Bernard Shaw – is so popular and why no experienced executive is surprised by the survey results in today’s lead story.

Communications are effective when your audience can echo the message in their own considered translation, and acknowledge the action it asks of them, even if that action is simply appreciation and readiness.

How can you really know your communications are, well, communicating? Ask.

Consider a left-field tip from Ed Koch, mayor of New York City in the 1980s. He regularly (and famously) walked the sidewalks of NYC, constantly asking pedestrians “How’m I doin’?” and then actually listened to the answers.

Koch’s ground-level, first-hand experience informed his messages and his decisions. It strengthened his standing, too. Crusty voters listened more intently to Koch because, in part, they saw him listening to them. A politically valuable virtuous cycle.

We call it rounding. Koch was rounding on NYC.

It’s an old-school lesson, but we raise this to the top of your mental inbox because the need for effective communications is so great, today’s messages are so complex, and time feels so short.

In this environment, an understandable response can be to do, well, more. More emails, more meetings, more videos, posters, town halls or more of whatever your favorite channels may be. This may be exactly the right course to take.

In today’s digitally buzzy soundscape, the “seven times” maxim still stands. You want to communicate a message at least seven times – ideally, in seven different ways – before you can expect your audience to hear it for the very first time.

Said another way: Communication begins at the very moment you become tired of delivering your own message.

And yet more isn’t inherently better. You could be just adding to the static, and the message you may be delivering is one of frantic instability instead of the clarity you intend. There’s no time or treasure to waste on communications eye candy.

So then, how do you differentiate between the two? How do you ensure that the message is delivered and received, and that the volume and method of communication match the moment? A few thoughts:

Ask first.

Test your communications with your targets before you launch your full effort: In a one-on-one conversation with someone sure to be candid with you, or in trusted small groups, or through formal research platforms, such as surveys or focus groups.

Test your messages, of course, but also your delivery. Sometimes potentially compelling messages get mangled by the wrong vehicle, the wrong timing or the wrong messenger. It’s more than the words. 

Yes, we know, you may feel you do not have money or patience for this step, but it could save you the considerable expense of correcting and clarifying on the other side of an inadequate comms effort.

Ask after.

Once your communication has met the real world – after it has tried to land through the shouting distractions of workdays and family nights – ask your audience: Did it land as planned? Do they remember what was communicated? How did they interpret it and what, if anything, have they been asked to do through it?

Some organizations deploy ongoing pulse surveys – quick questions sent to a sample of their target audience – to continually test the success of their communications efforts over time. They track the results and fine-tune their campaigns.

Read the results.

If you were running a political campaign, you would know the morning after the election how effective your communications were. If you’re running a retail campaign, you know if shoppers are buying what you’re selling.

 By monitoring these decisions you’re tracking, in part, the persuasiveness of your argument and watching for the behavior changes you’re hoping to activate. A vote cast. A dollar spent. A few minutes longer at the bedside. A willingness to adopt instead of resist change.

Yes, it can be difficult to directly connect a specific communication to broad behavior change, particularly in organizations – such as any health system – where multiple initiatives are always underway. The inputs and variables are many and the timespan for behavior change may be longer.

Even so, the value of testing and monitoring remains high; the feedback is core to being in conversation with the stakeholders whose decisions will either propel or brake your organization’s momentum.

The virtuous cycle of communications 

Communications is not a thing that is done, it’s a conversation to host. You know there is no “one and done;” there may be other impatient leaders who need to be reminded of it.

Some might box communications into an activity, a set of discrete tasks to be checked off a list – the email was sent, the video recorded, the press release published.

That tactical view limits what you can accomplish through thoughtful communication and is unfair to your audience; it expects too much. It’s cardboard leadership.

Asking, listening, telling, translating, learning, tweaking your messages and delivery again and again so that it’s received with clarity. This is the virtuous cycle and the hard work of effective communications.

All the above is grounded in two fundamental assumptions.

The first? That your communications contain something worth hearing, something that is worthy of your audience’s attention and comprehension. Irrelevant content is a non-starter and receptivity to your message erodes with every wasted email.

The second? That you recognize that you and your leaders, including your managers and directors, embody communications. Who you are and how you conduct yourselves is a powerful message, for good or ill.

Why should your audience invest themselves in your communications if you don’t mean what you say? If it’s not a priority for you, why should it be a priority for them?

The GE-Ipsos survey in today’s story included company CEOs and entry level employees. Remember that key take highlighted above: “40% of entry-level employees say they don’t see their CEOs ‘walk the walk.’”

Want to know if your communications are communicating?

Be Ed. Take a walk and ask “How we doin’?”

Contributors: David Shifrin
Image Credit: Shannon Threadgill