September Is Back-to-School Time, and We Can All Learn to Communicate Better
For the last three months, my Insights columns have provided thoughts on governance, leadership, and employee engagement. In each case my last suggestion was “communicate, communicate, communicate!” During my years with the Baldrige Program, I have observed that almost every organization we have reviewed, no matter how mature, has always had an opportunity to improve communication. As we all know, communication is critical to engaging employees, customers, the community….all our stakeholders.
Three particular recent events brought this topic to the fore for my column this month. First, my wife is a school teacher and has just started the new year. She recounted to me several first-week interactions with parents in which clear communication trumped the rumor mill. What if the parents had not asked? What if my wife had not volunteered information that averted awkward questions? The second trigger was a story I read about Google’s communications with employees, which included one-page updates/information sheets placed as bathroom reading. Why not? Never lose an opportunity to communicate. The third event was part of my recent visit to Columbia, Missouri, where I spent some time with the Columbia Baldrige Performance Excellence Group (see my blog post for this exciting effort initiated by Larry Potterfield, CEO of 2009 Baldrige Award recipient Midway USA). On the evening I arrived, I had dinner with several leaders from the business, education (K–12 and higher education), and local government sectors. Larry invited them to ask me tough questions about Baldrige. For about 30 minutes, they did ask me questions. For the remainder of the approximately two-hour dinner, they asked each other questions and engaged in a fascinating dialogue about their community. I listened with enthusiasm and pride; Baldrige had fostered dialogue and progress. Does this happen frequently—in Columbia or anywhere else in the United States? I doubt it. Several of the people did not know each other before the evening. Will the dialogue continue? I hope so, and I honestly think so! I think this is the start of Larry’s dream to create a “Community of Excellence.” And it all starts with good communication.
So this month, I did some additional reading on communication and have some thoughts to share that I hope will cause you to think about your communication style and opportunities. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2008 Job Satisfaction Survey reported that communication between employees and senior management was among the top five very important aspects of job satisfaction. Towers Watson, the largest professional services firm in the world, states in its 2009/2010 Communication ROI Report that companies that are effective communicators had 47% higher returns to shareholders over the last five years than companies that are the least effective communicators. The report also emphasizes that measurement is critical; companies that are less effective at communication are three times as likely as highly effective communicators to have no formal measurements of communication effectiveness. Of course, organizations that use the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence already know the overall importance of measurement. Category 4, Measurement, Analysis, and Knowledge Management, is foundational to the use of the Criteria, and “management by fact” is one of the 11 Baldrige Core Values.
Towers Watson itself is an interesting study in communication effectiveness. It was formed in 2009 from the merger of two large professional services companies: Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt. Throughout the merger process, the companies maintained an extraordinary focus on internal and external communication. The managers of both companies were first notified at exactly the same time through a Web conference. Fifteen minutes later, a press release and an e-mail to all employees were sent out. Managers received packets of information to use in both formal and informal ongoing channels of communication. And they were told to “name the elephant in the room”: to acknowledge the uncertainty but also focus on things that can be controlled. Two-way communication was strongly encouraged.
When it comes to employee communication, studies by Watson Wyatt, Gallup, and Towers Perrin have all agreed on the costs of poor communication:
- increased employee turnover
- increased absenteeism
- dissatisfied customers due to poor customer service
- higher product defect rates
- stifled innovation
Here are some guidelines for good organizational communication (based on what I have read):
Good communication involves facts and feelings. Share the facts. Share your feelings, and listen to the feelings of your stakeholders.
Good communication requires visibility and transparency. Good communicators are available and open.
Good communication is two-way communication. Good communication involves equally good telling and listening.
Good communication is coordinated. Internal and external messages are compatible and properly timed.
Good communication does not control every message. Good communicators are responsive to internal and external reactions and comments. They allow others the opportunity to express opinions. They quickly respond to rumors and can be convinced to modify their messages.
Let me conclude with a suggestion for measuring how effective communication is within your organization. The Baldrige Program offers two 40-question, ten-minute surveys entitled Are We Making Progress?
and Are We Making Progress as Leaders?
Try administering them in parallel to employees and leaders, respectively, and compare your results. The differences in perception should give you some insights about communication effectiveness....Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence!