Falling on deaf ears: Why good ideas get lost on employees

Not sure why your great ideas seem lost on employees, or why they aren’t doing more to make them happen? It might be time to change the way you communicate.

Warning to big thinkers: This post may induce boredom, distraction and denial. Read it anyway.

I recently spoke to a group of entrepreneurs about internal communications. I focused on how leaders should develop an internal communications plan to get employees behind their vision.

I deliver this topic every year, and routinely coach CEOs around it. I can predict with certainty the reaction. First, I see head nods in acknowledgement. Then there’s an exchange with some combination of avoidance, denial, excuses and assurances that it’s “taken care of.”

I get it. If you want to bring a big picture thinker down, just mention the words “plan” or “process.” Coming up with the vision is the fun part, but communicating it often feels like the opposite. It seems boring, and who wants boring when there’s so much creative thinking to do?

Internal communications is the primary place where great ideas fall short. As leaders we want to dream big, announce our dream, and then get to work. The problem is that the rest of the company doesn’t operate like that.

If you have a big idea you want to initiate, here’s how you can build a plan to ensure success:

1. Launch your vision in person

In our culture, people like to communicate with leaders in person to better understand the direction the company is taking. It is not only comforting to hear the words, but to read the leaders’ body language. People use these visual and auditory clues to assess the seriousness and potential of new ideas, and to determine how much they should care.

Introduce your new vision during an all-hands meeting. Make yourself clear, and allow everyone to ask questions. Remember that your main goal is to inspire, not to inform. Perfectly crafted graphs may be helpful, but you must embody the message and show excitement.

2. Name your vision

Make your message easy to remember by creating a pithy abbreviation or acronym for it. Doing so keeps the vision real, and allows people to directly apply it to their contributions. Companies can put the vision on walls, pens, shirts, and even on the website. The goal is to have it become part of the shared language of the office. For superb ideas, check out Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh’s book.

3. Display a real-time score card

Good sales teams know that watching the progress toward accomplishing a goal is almost as fun as hitting it. Find a way to measure your vision, and make the progress public. Mention it in company meetings, display it on intranets, and send out regular updates. This creates camaraderie and keeps people focused on the goal, even when unavoidable bumps occur.

4. Create clear, downward-flowing communications

Information flows in any company and, if you don’t control it, flows along the path of least resistance. This path usually involves rumor mills. When change happens, anxiety inevitably comes with it. Make sure there are clear communication channels to let people know what is happening and how the new vision is progressing. This can be as simple as sending a weekly update message that managers pass down, or it can involve a team of liaisons that distribute messages. The net effect is everyone hears roughly the same information at the same time, and there’s clarity about what the leadership is doing and how the company is performing.

5. Have an equally strong upward communications

As the leader, you also have to make sure information gets back to you as unfiltered as possible. Create venues for people to ask questions, offer complaints and voice concerns about the change. I’ve hosted regular CEO luncheons and established a corporate policy where anyone could email the boss with questions. I once worked with a large finance company where the CEO held weekly town hall meetings through videoconferencing. He answered questions at these meetings and encouraged debate. He garnered a tremendous amount of support even though most people had never met him personally.

6. Celebrate success and admit failures

People quickly lose trust when new initiatives seem to fall off the corporate radar. Employees are busy, and they have short attention spans. It’s your job as the leader to keep your priorities front-of-mind for everyone. Take the time to publicly celebrate strides the company has made, and call out individual contributions. It will make success seem within reach and personal.

Leaders will often shy away from setting bold goals because they worry they won’t achieve them. It’s OK to fail, but not OK to hide. When you face challenges, publicly admit what isn’t working. Take accountability and propose new solutions. The worst thing you can do is announce a new vision, only to silently take it off the table when circumstances get in the way. It will be much harder to inspire your team the next time if you do this.

7. Don’t forget the “rule of seven”

Marketers know the “rule of seven,” which says that people need to see something seven times before they act on it. As the leader you are marketing your ideas, and an internal communications plan is a way to put the Rule of Seven into effect. Don’t believe for a minute that just because the vision is your priority that it’s also your team’s priority. By establishing a well-defined process for communicating new ideas, you will find that they will more often become realities.

Kristi Hedges is an executive coach, leadership development consultant and author of “Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.” She blogs at KristiHedges.com, where this article originally ran. Follow her on Twitter @kristihedges.

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