The communication challenge

The communication challenge

Communication permeates through almost everything that we do and the understanding of what the word refers to is different for different groups. ‘Communication skills’ workshops used to talk about written and spoken communication, and sometimes include training in presentation skills. Now, these are hygiene content – emails, social media and more are clamouring for attention. This is true for us as individuals and truer for organisations. Corporate communication has always been about building the brand as much as it has been about the content of messages. Is that changing? With an overdose of communication, what are the lessons learnt by senior management professionals on corporate communication? Read on.

Senior management professionals need to accept the paradox that while employees want to hear you speak, that does not guarantee that they will believe you. For that to happen, using multiple channels – mails, blogs, webcasts, conference calls, large group presentations and small group exchanges, is crucial.

When companies choose to communicate with their employees, the aim is usually either to share information or request action. Today, more than ever, no company can afford to maintain silence, and that brings us to the third aspect of communication – connecting with employees. The first two aspects of communication haven’t changed much over the last decade or so. However, I do believe they should have. Employees no longer look to the top management for this information; it’s the Internet that they turn to.

So, the first aim of corporate communication needs to be amended – from sharing information to sharing insight, direction and perspective. While employees have access to as much information as they want to see, they do not have the validation or authentication that the internal sources can give them. This is why information sharing remains a critical aim of internal communications. However, this is also why the nature and texture of fulfilling this aim must change; must move from sharing information to sharing feelings, experiences and all that makes us equally vulnerable to the vagaries of business. Similarly, the second aim of requesting action from employees doesn’t change in the basics, but the texture of communication to achieve this must keep up with the times. And what are these times and the changes they demand of us?

The balance of power between employers and employees has changed. And it is not likely to change back in the foreseeable future. The paternalistic model of management will not survive because employees don’t want a father-figure at work. Individual brand value is not eroded by working in small companies, startups, failed entrepreneurship ventures or even not working at all at times. Given this plethora of choice – and respectable choices that will not devalue ones resume – employees have gained the upper hand. This means that workforce culture is created by the culture of the workforce. And all this dictates the kind of communication that will work.

Top management has to earn the employee’s trust every single time. That a CEO has given a message does not make it the truth. Examples from companies like Enron and others have contributed to this lack of default credibility. So, how does the top management earn trust and fulfil the aims of corporate communication?

First, accept the paradox that while employees want to hear you speak, that does not guarantee that they will believe you. For that to happen, use multiple channels – mails, blogs, webcasts, conference calls, large group presentations and small group exchanges. Use the channels that your workforce identifies with, not the ones you grew up with – a CEO is usually a generation away from the bulk of your workforce and must stay cognizant of that. Even in entrepreneurial ventures, where CEOs are often as young as their teams, the mental makeup that makes him/her a CEO sets the rest of the team apart. Stay tuned to these differences.

If you want employees to trust you, make sure that you share information first, openly and with any caveats you need to. So, when you have information that is not fully confirmed yet, if it is of interest to employees, share it in its half-baked form. They will hear it from somewhere else and you have lost a chance to build your credibility. The caution that many older CEOs and top management professionals feel on holding back communication until all the loose ends are tied up is valid, where legal and related issues are concerned. In all other cases, where multiple stakeholder involvement means information will get out, the best option is to share information. Narayana Murthy’s advice of ‘when in doubt, disclose’ should be your strategy and it certainly helps earn trust.

With the tools of communication being increasingly available to more people, it is the content that is unique and has the potential to differentiate. So, for the CEO, this means that updates and messages that do not speak to the concerns that employees face have no impact and diminishes his/her credibility. For example, in a quarterly update, employees look to hear updates on a market rumour of a takeover or indications of an account loss, or news of a new account that was expected to be added. The CEO who waits for 100 per cent confirmation to talk of any of these and spends time talking about other routine matters, loses credibility and distances himself from the team. And after such a speech, the opportunity to answer questions is often squandered in one of the two ways. Either the CEO continues to skirt the main issue or the group has taken the message that no ‘real’ information is forthcoming and refrain from asking questions.

So, what should a CEO do? Well, acknowledge that these elephants are in the air, address them with whatever information can be shared and answer questions openly and authentically. The trick is also in discerning what information can be shared and what cannot – the CEO’s risk appetite as it were. A thumb rule that works for the modern workforce is that if it doesn’t violate legal, tax, government or corporate laws, it is probably safe to share, with appropriate caveats and conditions. Today’s workforce will appreciate that more than they appreciate the attempt to control information flow, which is doomed to fail.

Good and trustworthy CEOs build trust by being the first one to share bad news and warnings. They base their communication on channels and modes that are relevant to the recipient, not the sender. Content is designed to answer questions in employees’ minds and not information that is safe and available. They use social media, blogs, direct conversations and informal events to beef up their formal communication. One way to get around the constraints that formal channels impose is to employ an informal channel such as a blog to talk about issues that cannot be addressed formally.

End of the day, we all know that trust has always had to be earned, whether a 100 years ago or today. However, now we start from a zero balance and not from a default position of trust.

Shubha Kasivisweswaran, is an HR professional with more than 18 years of experience across industries, having worked in Gulf Oil, Cerebrus Consultants and Mercer. She is presently a director with SunGard Global Technologies and is available for questions or feedback at

The opinions and comments stated in this article are of the author and do not represent the company nor the magazine.

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