Are your employees just an audience—or co-communicators?

Regardless of your community’s size, the rules of engagement should hold true.

Regardless of your community’s size, the rules of engagement should hold true

A few years ago, The Journal of Employee Communication Management published an article titled “Employees Are Not an Audience.” It was written by Glynn Young, who now heads up internal communications at Monsanto Co.

His basic premise is simple yet significant—the job of organizational communicators should NOT be mainly to create and deliver messages to the employee audience, but rather to facilitate conversations within the employee community.

That distinction is more than an exercise in semantics. It goes to the heart of why organizations struggle—and often fail—to generate meaningful employee engagement. It also explains why organizations get caught in the wrongheaded notion that they need better “two-way” communication. Seriously, is there any other kind? Bottom line, if it isn’t two-way, it isn’t communication. It’s message distribution.

Community of professionals

Even if we’re not conscious of it, we know in our guts that employees shouldn’t be treated as an audience when it comes to communication. Just look at another metaphor often used for them—team. Can you imagine how Michael Jordan or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols or other sports team members would react if their organizations communicated with them like an “audience?” Pretty weird, huh?

But they’re different, right? After all, those people are “professionals.” Consider for a moment, though, how an organization might run its business and communicate with its employees differently if it viewed employees as a “community of professionals”—professional accountants, professional order entry clerks, professional maintenance workers, professional production line workers—and so on? You get the picture.

Sure, the challenges are different when you’re communicating with 12 to 50 people instead of 12,000 to 50,000. But the need for people to feel that their organizations are communicating with them as professional members of a team is much the same.

Shifting from messages to conversations

Admittedly, logistics are more complex with larger groups, and the options for communicating differ from one organization to the next, depending on numerous factors. What’s more, truly interactive communication simply isn’t possible in all circumstances.

If the building is on fire, for example, that’s no time to engage an employee discussion group in considering various options on how to respond. Still, organizations of any size and circumstance can and should shift from “sending messages” to “facilitating conversations” wherever possible by operating on two basic principles:

1. Stop using the phrase “communicate to,” and replace it with “communicate with.” If the best you can do is send a message, say so—but don’t call it communication.

2. Where it’s feasible and appropriate, frame “messages” as “conversation points,” and create systematic ways for employees to converse and provide feedback on those topics.

Although those principles are important for everyone in management to understand, it’s vital for people in charge of internal communications to follow them if they want to get their workforce truly engaged and strengthen working relationships within the “employee community.”

Les Landes is president of Landes & Associates, which focuses on aligning marketing communications and employee engagement. He is also the author of the Inside Out Blog and E-Column, which features tips and trends for creating alignment in organizations.

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