Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Employee Communication: What's The Big Idea?

What communication strategy should you use? What elements should you include but also leave out of your chosen communication?

Surprisingly an article in the not-so-snappily-named Academy of Management Executive Journal, written in the dim and distant past of 2000 offers some fascinating insights into this issue.

So, as you probably won't have time to read the article (A strategy for communicating about uncertainty by Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman) for yourself, here's their rather memorable and amusing summary of the five typical communication strategies favoured by most organisations:

Spray and Pray
What's the Big Idea? It's based on the idea that management should shower employees with all kinds of information.
What do I do? Throw as much information at employees as possible and hope they will be able to sort out the significant from the insignificant.
Advantages: It's simple.
Disadvantages: Information is not the same as communication, so you'll confuse the pants off some employees who may be overwhelmed by the amount of detail they receive.

Tell and Sell
What's the Big Idea? It's based on the belief that it's important to communicate a set of messages that address core organisational issues.
What do I do? First: tell employees about key issues; Second: sell to the employees the wisdom of your chosen path.
Advantages: At least you're communicating.
Disadvantages: It assumes that you know all the key organisational issues, so employees become sceptical and cynical of yet another program of the month decided by management.

Underscore and Explore
What's the Big Idea? This approach focuses on several fundamental issues most clearly linked to organisational success, while allowing employees the creative freedom to explore the implications of those ideas in a disciplined way.
What do I do? First: Talk. Second: Listen.
Advantages: You'll gain the engagement of those employees with whom you're communicating, by allowing them the opportunity to give feedback.
Disadvantages: You give control to your employees. Whoo! Scary!

Identify and Reply
What's the Big Idea? This one is seriously different to the first three in that it focuses on employee concerns.
What do I do? Allow the employees to identify those issues that concern them and then reply to those issues.
Advantages: It stresses the importance of listening to employees.
Disadvantages: It's essentially defensive, and assumes that employees are in the best position to know the critical issues when, in fact, they may not know enough to even ask the right questions.

Withhold and Uphold
What's the Big Idea? This devious approach is favoured by those for whom secrecy and control are the preferred strategy.
What do I do? Say nothing until absolutely necessary. Then uphold the party line.
Advantages: It allows you to concentrate on the day job rather than talk to the peasants.
Disadvantages: The rumour mill goes into overdrive; informal speculation workshops take place at the coffee machine; productivity nosedives.

Whichever approach you adopt, make sure that the description of a US Manufacturing organisation quoted by Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman doesn't apply to you:
The prevailing opinion was that management was either evil for withholding information, stupid because it didn't know what was happening, or helpless since it never reacted until the last minute. We dubbed this phenomenon the terrible triad.
Now, over to you. Any comments?


  1. So Mr Salisbury goes for the ‘underscore and explore’ approach, giving control to his readers. Whoo! Scary!

    Let’s face it, with x employees in an organisation and x ideas of what great communication should be, can we ever get it right?

    ‘Not enough communication’ says the employee engagement survey. So you fill the notice boards and swamp the airways with information. ‘Pointless info, can’t be bothered to read it’ say the masses.

    ‘No-one ever listens’ say the minions. ‘No-one ever speaks’ say the bosses.

    All we can ask is that we all take responsibility for communicating with each other. We are open and honest in our communications, we think about the impact our interactions may have, we listen and we respond honestly when we are asked a question.

    Who’d have thought something so simply could be so hard!!


  2. ETBG: As ever, thanks for the insightful response. Actually been wondering today if different functions tend to gravitate to one strategy rather than the other. Is there, for example, a preferred communications style of IT departments? Or do Finance adopt the same approach as HR?

    As is often the case: so many questions, so few answers!