How to Improve Leader Communication
3 ways to keep employees informed with the right channel(s)
Imagine that you work at a manufacturing plant in a large company. You are on the line and see your direct manager every day. You know there are leaders above your manager, but you never actually see them. Your only knowledge of them is from emails.
But you require more from leaders. You want to feel appreciated for the hard work you do. You want your leader(s) to make the extra effort to visit your plant, so you can properly put a face to their name. At the very least, you want to experience leaders as more than just an email signature.
High-performing leaders know that effective communication requires three key elements:
If you’re a communicator, HR professional or someone who supports leaders, your role is to provide leaders with the coaching, tools, and resources they need to communicate. Here’s how:
The need for more visibility from leaders is a common theme for employees, especially those in a larger company.
Increase leader visibility by following these tips:
Start by using research to make your case. Since most leaders are focused on numbers—sales, profits, stock price, etc.—use quantitative employee research, complete with statistics and percentages, to demonstrate communication weaknesses. Then supplement it with anonymous employee quotes gathered through focus groups or employee interviews to tell an evocative story.
Create a leader communication plan. By creating a plan specifically for leaders, you have the opportunity to propose your ideas to leaders, get feedback from them and work together to make a plan that everyone feels comfortable with. Once you gain buy-in and commitment, you can set the course for improved communication and schedule actionable steps, accountabilities, and concrete deadlines.
Leverage your leader’s time. Senior leaders are constantly traveling to different sites for meetings, interviews, etc. Use this to your advantage and look for opportunities for your leader to address employees. Whether it’s an impromptu speech in the site’s cafeteria or a scheduled town hall meeting, by including employees in the visit, your leader will send a message that employees are valued.
Give leaders a presence across all venues. Including the leader’s “voice” in all communication makes the message human instead of nameless, faceless corporate-speak. Take advantage of opportunities for your leaders to tell a story or provide meaning and context on an issue.
Create a vehicle just for your leader. Whether it’s an email, intranet page or webcast, provide leaders with a distinctive way to express their perspectives and share their experiences. Position this vehicle as a way for leaders to communicate the relevant facts and “big picture” company information.
Yes, employees pay attention to what leaders communicate, but they also care a lot about when they receive critical information. Their preference? Information that’s delivered “just in time”—right when they need to act and before hearing it from external sources.
Here’s how leaders can communicate in a timely way:
Focus on what employees need to do—and when they need to do it
Here’s something that may surprise you: The biggest timing mistake organizations make is actually communicating too much, too soon. Instead, focus on the employee experience. When do employees need a heads up? When do they really need to start paying attention? When are the deadlines they need to meet?
It’s true that surprises come up, but 80% of what you need to communicate is expected. So, there’s no excuse not to communicate with enough time for people to act—but not too early that they file it for later and forget about it. Be sure to keep holidays and weekends in mind.
When it’s time for your readers to do something, let them know! Be sure to include a deadline and enough time for them to complete it.
Create and follow a communication timeline to notify employees when more information will be available—even if it’s an estimate (e.g., “shortly” or “within a few weeks”). Try sending a series of short, targeted e-blasts just in time.
When employees receive communication, they expect it to be the full picture and not sugar-coated fluff. This is also true when leaders communicate—they need to give employees all of the information that helps employees do their job effectively.
Here are some ways to prepare leaders to communicate transparently:
Be honest. Employees want transparency, so don’t attempt to lie or spin the truth. When employees sense a message is not genuine, their trust in the entire organization erodes very quickly. Sometimes you won’t have all the information up front, but that’s fine. Instead, focus on what you can share with employees now and what you intend to have more information to share later.
For example, if a division of your company goes up for sale, the first thing you need to do is tell employees exactly how the sale supports the company’s story. Providing this context helps employees understand why decisions are made and the context for change. Even if it’s too early to know the full impact on the affected employees, commit to providing additional information once you know more.
Share a personal story. Don’t rehash the financial results that were posted last week on your company website. Instead, have your CEO talk openly about the achievements he’s most proud of or what keeps him awake at night. Science has proven that our brains love a good story. By sharing a personal story, your leader will connect with employees, build trust and create a culture of transparency.
Suggest ways to encourage openness without scaring the lawyers (or whoever else is anxious). For example, I find that senior leaders are much more likely to speak openly in small group settings. That’s why I often recommend including “coffee chats” or other informal meetings as part of a leader communication program.
Offer to support leaders who are less risk-averse. A few years ago, we worked with a very old-fashioned corporation with a CEO who didn’t want to disclose anything. But the head of Asia-Pacific was much more willing to share information to employees in that region. So, we developed a series of forums (mostly face-to-face) that allowed the regional head to communicate fairly openly. That pilot program paved the way for other regional heads to try similar tactics.
Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for 30 years has helped leading companies – such as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Solutions, Nestle, Roche, and Rogers Communications – increase employee engagement. Alison sets the strategic direction for the firm, consults with the client on their toughest communication challenges and leads the development of new products and services.