Communication with employees is a Goldilocks problem

Communication with employees is a Goldilocks problem

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Ask people what their organisations need to do better, and nine times out of 10, they will say communicate. Whether it’s too much or too little, it’s never just right. When it comes to communication, we have a Goldilocks problem.

If you think communication is not your job, you’re wrong. Everyone thinks someone else is the one who sucks and needs to do better. But this is not a ‘someone else problem’, or a ‘human resources problem’, or a ‘sales and marketing problem’, or a ‘leadership problem’. It’s an everyone problem.

When people talk about communicating better, too often they default to more, but that might not solve the problem. So what does ‘just right’ mean?

Before I jump in, I assume you know why you are communicating whatever it is. Yes? Okay. If you don’t, nothing else I say will matter.

Start with ‘who’ (you might recognise them as your message recipient). Organisations don’t communicate. People in them do. One person talks to another person. Even if the chief executive is talking to everyone in the organisation, when I read or listen to what they say, it’s them talking to just me.

Somewhere along the way, we got lost in the land of ‘we’. So instead of talking to me, it’s ‘dear team’, or worse, the dreaded ‘to all’. A great place to start is to consider who you need to talk to. Here, need is the operative word, because covering your ass by sending something to everyone and their dog is not helping.

Next up is ‘what’ you are communicating. Point to anything in an organisation that is causing people pain, and you will find dysfunctional communication lurking somewhere in the mix.

Absent any sense of ‘what’, they throw words at the problem. What words? Just about any will do, so long as there are lots of them. When it comes to what, the quantity of words is a sure sign people haven’t thought about the problem at hand.

Sharing strategy, a new safety policy or the kitchen clean-up request all require different content. And by content, I mean the kind of language and messages. Who am I kidding, no-one reads the bit of paper stuck to the kitchen cupboard, no matter what it says.

Which brings me to ‘how’. I beg you, please stop using PowerPoint and limit email as a catchall for how you share stuff. Both are the fast-food of communication they should be consumed with care. A bit now and then is okay. Three times a day will kill you.

You’re more likely to get people’s attention if you rarely send an email or use PowerPoint. There are heaps of different hows beyond the usual suspects, so choose one. Or, if you must use email or PowerPoint, think even more carefully about your ‘who’ and ‘what’.

In a hilarious illustration of how those corporate communication tactics fail, Peter Norvig took the Gettysburg Address and turned Lincoln’s 268 glorious, stirring words into six PowerPoint slides. It is horrible and perfect.

Here’s a canary for your communication mine. If people always email someone who sits near them instead of having a conversation, you have a problem.

And last in the Goldilocks of it all is ‘when’. Timing is everything. Sometimes it’s the only thing. It’s no use sharing well-crafted information if it’s past the use-by date. Likewise, too far in advance of when I need to know about it and that thing will quickly be forgotten, buried under an avalanche of other things.

If your organisation is the unicorn who has their communication house (or bed) in order, I salute you. I bet you were deliberate. I’m positive it takes constant unheroic work. There’s a good chance you’re keeping your promises and have a brand result people want to stick with.

Because that’s where this all shows up. Communicating (what you intend) is central to any promise. So organisations who don’t communicate don’t make promises they can keep. How could they?

So stop thinking more (or less) and start with ‘who’. Get your ‘what’ in order. Figure out ‘how’ and know ‘when’. Repeat. And pretty soon you’ll have it ‘just right’.

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