Management guru Patrick Lencioni, in his book "The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family," pointed out that many of us spend a lot of time and energy developing strategic plans for our businesses, but fly by the seat of our pants with our families.
A similar phenomenon takes place within businesses. Many organizations plan tirelessly for how to best engage their external audiences: customers, investors, media, analysts, and community members.
Often, they forget their most important constituency: their employees, the people who have the most control over the future of the organization.
High-performing organizations make employee communications a priority. They know an engaged workforce makes for a more successful organization. And to engage employees, they understand the need to communicate strategically with them.
Gallup has an employee engagement survey that is widely used. Employees are split into three categories: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. Generally, nationwide, Gallup finds that about a quarter of employees are engaged and about 20 percent are actively disengaged. That leaves more than half of the employees on the fence, neither engaged nor disengaged.
Gary Grates was the vice president for corporate communications for GM when he wrote a 2004 article in the PRSA Strategist. He wrote: "Employees want to know what the company believes in and what it will fight for—its mission, vision, and values; its foundational principles. They will commit or not commit, engage or disengage, on the basis of that foundation."
Employees significantly influence the outcome of any work project. If you communicate strategically and with purpose, you're more likely to see all of your employees working with a common purpose, toward shared organizational goals.
Lee Iacocca had some cautionary words on the perils of ignoring the need for effective communication: "You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere.
Below are some tips for effective internal communications:
1. Be clear and concise.
Overwriting and using technical jargon will lead to confusion and misunderstanding.
2. Set the tone at the top.
CEOs and senior leaders need to set the tone. They need to be visible and accessible, and they need to understand that there's a correlation between strategic employee communication and the achievement of organizational goals.
3. Understand your employees.
You may need to communicate differently with different audiences. For custodians who don't use computers at work, email is ineffective. To determine your employees' needs and perceptions, consider surveying them regularly: Are they getting the information they need?
4. Use many channels.
Most people need to hear or see a message multiple times, in multiple ways, to understand it completely. Distribute your messages electronically, in writing, face to face, and at forums and meetings. Your message should be consistent across all these channels.
5. Provide context.
Employees need to hear information at multiple levels. Provide context (what external factors are at play?); explain strategy (why did we decide to respond this way?); and make it personal (how will this affect me?).
6. Be timely: Notify employees first!
When you prioritize your communications, always think of your internal people first. Your employees should hear it from you before they hear it from anyone else; they shouldn't be surprised by a media report.
7. Be forthcoming, and be continuous.
Always communicate, and communicate both good and bad news. If you are honest and candid in sharing bad news, your good news is more credible.
8. Match actions with words.
If you say you will address a situation in a certain way, do it. If you don't, you're undermining your credibility.
9. Emphasize face-to-face communications.
Although today's employees may be more tech-savvy than ever, nothing beats human interaction. Most employees want to hear news and information from their supervisors. Managers need to be trained in how to communicate, and they need to have the right tools at hand. If you are expecting your managers to help explain a complicated change to the organization's pension plan, you'd better provide them with talking points and handouts.
10. Create an organizational habit for communications.
You know you need to communicate about policies; health and safety; benefits; and how a job should be carried out. But remember that you also need to share information about your organization—what our your objectives? How are you performing? What are your plans and prospects? How can employees help?
Be systematic and strategic. Have an editorial calendar that spells out what you'll say, and when, where, and how you'll say it. Develop a checklist of what needs to be communicated.
12. Measure effectiveness.
Set objectives, and be prepared to assess whether you have met them, as well as whether they are employee engagement goals or perception goals. You might want to regularly assess engagement levels and ask employees whether the organization has communicated its strategy well. Do they understand how their daily work helps the organization meet its goals?
13. Facilitate conversation.
One-way communication is a thing of the past. Individuals are empowered to talk back, and feeling "listened to" enhances feelings of trust. There are many ways to facilitate two-way communication, including face-to-face meetings; "town hall" meetings; interactive video interviews; Twitter questions; employee surveys; Q&A features on the employee intranet; and anonymous suggestions via email or suggestion boxes.
14. Be objective.
Don't "spin," or try to dictate or assume how people should feel about the news you're sharing.
15. Say "thank you" as much as possible.
If an employee feels appreciated, she's more likely to feel engaged.
Don't take shortcuts, or make a half-hearted effort. If you do, you're likely to fall short of your goals or be met with a crisis down the road. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
Sarah Boggess is a vice president at Behan Communications. A version of this article first appeared on the Behan Communications website.