Are your business or nonprofit organization employees or co-workers openly communicating? If not, it has a big problem.
How can they ‘live the brand’ internally and externally if they’re afraid to rock the boat or feel that their feedback is pointless? They can’t.
According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris, leaders use a variety of tools to get people to speak up. They focus on improving communication up and down the hierarchy.
But, these usually fail for two reasons:
- a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions, and even firing)
- a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?)
The typical methods managers use to encourage open communication:
The Fear Factor:
“Once people become afraid to speak their minds, they’ll keep justifying their silence with explanations like ‘That’s the way our culture is—you don’t disagree with your boss.’”
“Allowing employees to remain unidentified actually underscores the risks of speaking up—and reinforces people’s fears. The subtext is ‘It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization. So we’ve created other channels to get the information we need.’”
The writers claim that anonymity can also set off a witch hunt as demanding bosses want to know who said what. They also add that it can be difficult to address issues while protecting the identity of the people who raised them.
Invitations to Come Forward
“Open doors and attitudes are simply too passive. People still have to approach you to initiate a conversation, and that’s intimidating.”
Conveying Power through Subtle Cues
Despite good intentions, some bosses’ body language and physical space can cause “employees to clam up.”
The Futility Factor
“The biggest reason for withholding ideas and concerns wasn’t fear but, rather, the belief that managers wouldn’t do anything about them anyway.”
Detert and Burris cite three leadership behaviors why this happens:
- When leaders fail to model free expression themselves, their employees take note.
- Because leaders are most responsive to ideas that support their own agendas, they can have a hard time admitting that they’re not interested in other ideas. They need to be clear about the input they want.
- Leaders collect ideas without the resources to address issues.
Successful brands weave open internal communication into their company cultures.And, it’s pays off.
In a number of studies, we’ve found that when employees can voice their concerns freely, organizations see increased retention and stronger performance.” (Harvard Business Review, “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?” January-February 2016)
How to Encourage Open Internal Communication
Detert and Burris’ Recommendations:
- Make feedback a regular, casual exchange. “If you ask for input frequently and hold the conversations face-to-face, idea sharing will feel less ominous and more natural”
- Be transparent. “Transparency about feedback processes can reduce anxiety and increase participation”
- Reach out. “If you really want to know what people think about something, go ask them.”
- Soften the power cues. If managers really want to get the truth from below, they need to play down their power when interacting with employees.
- Avoid sending mixed messages.
- Be the example. Employees feel inspired when they see managers advocating for them.
- Close the loop. “Make sure you tell them what you did next and what they can expect as a result.”
My Two Cents
As with external customers, your business could not exist without internal customers – its employees. “They have tremendous influence on its success or failure.” (Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most For Small Business Success, ©2015, Elaine Fogel)
In my opinion, many organizations are weak when it comes to connecting the dots between internal communication/marketing and branding. If the internal culture doesn’t match the brand values, vision, and personality, it’s much harder for employees to deliver the brand promise.