The communication channel missing in action and who should care

The revered dean of employee communications makes a case for reviving face-to-face communication by managers. Not even internal social media is a good substitute.

I have been mystified for years why communication professionals have been so reluctant to exploit the most powerful communication channel they have—namely, line managers in their face-to-face communication role.

Maybe the reason is the abundance of technology at the communicator’s disposal. Or maybe they believe that this is HR’s responsibility. Or maybe they just don’t know how to go at it. Or maybe they have been conditioned by that silly parlor game of telephone where people distort messages they attempt to repeat verbatim. Take your pick. Whatever the cause, we have an opportunity you could drive a truck through.

One of the most compelling reasons for addressing this opportunity is the impact of poor first-line communication on the rest of the internal media. A skeptical manager can destroy the credibility of the best-crafted communications with a wink and a nod.

The deficit and the data

In connecting lousy management to the vital business issue of employee engagement, Gallup Organization CEO Jim Clifton quantifies the cost of poor management. While he doesn’t flag poor management communication per se, you have to know that lousy managers are typically lousy communicators. Clifton neatly defines the problem and the opportunity in his introduction to Gallup’s 2013 report “State of the American Workplace”:

Here’s what you need to know: Gallup research has found that the top 25 percent of teams—the best managed—versus the bottom 25 percent in any workplace—the worst managed—have nearly 50 percent fewer accidents and have 41 percent fewer quality defects. What’s more, teams in the top 25 percent versus the bottom 25 percent incur far less in healthcare costs. So having too few engaged employees means our workplaces are less safe, employees have more quality defects, and disengagement—which results from terrible managers—is driving up the country’s healthcare costs.

Gallup research also shows that these managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually. If your company reflects the average in the U.S., just imagine what poor management and disengagement are costing your bottom line.

The hard communication data corroborate Clifton’s and Gallup’s findings. The ROI Communication Benchmark, which measures communication performance in large organizations (the Fortune 500 and Global 500 lists and privately held firms with estimated annual revenue of at least $4 billion) reports that communication as a core leadership and manager competency ranked dead last among ten recognized organizational communication priorities. Specifically:

  • Only 32 percent of survey participants say that managers regularly explain the relevance of company issues and events to their teams;
  • One in four managers is not considered a credible source of information;
  • Only 55 percent offer recognition and appreciation for a job well done;
  • Only 25 percent clearly understand their communication role;
  • Which coincides with the fact that only 27 percent receive communication training;
  • And that only 18 percent are measured for communication performance in their performance reviews.

It’s tempting to take a simplistic approach to this challenge—to assume that it’s only a matter of training or of providing the right information at the right time. But that’s a disservice to the people whose communication performance we want to improve. At least four tasks need to be taken up.

There’s the critical matter of establishing accountability for the behavior. But accountability is unfair without training and development. Training and development do little good unless we provide the necessary follow-up tools to reinforce the training and then measure the results.

The conversation

What we have lately taken to calling “social business” or “social media” as a catchall category for that dialogue, that conversation, won’t happen inside institutional organizations without a deliberate initiative and accompanying strategy. Indeed, if you think about it, the ultimate expression of social media and two-way communication is human to human in real time. In such interactions there is the added value of body language, facial expression and tone of voice that infinitely enhances our ability to take in and interpret any message. These are powerful communication signals that no intermediating device—no matter how ‘smart’—can satisfactorily replicate.

There also is the clear and powerful business case for improving face-to-face communication in today’s organizations. The jury is no longer out. We know that the most effective work organizations are the ones where there is good leadership at every level and where such leadership produces impressive levels of employee engagement. Conversely, we know that what Jim Clifton describes as ‘managers from hell’ create active disengagement, destroying productivity and egos in their wake.

In the midst of workplace stress, confusion, mistrust and simple human need, there is a powerful human case for attending to this most basic kind of communication. Our business success and our human satisfaction with our work both demand it.

Roger D’Aprix is leader of his own consultancy D’Aprix & Co. as well as a member of ROI Communication’s Board of Advisors. His latest work is “Creating an Engaged Workforce: the Face-to-Face Communication Toolkit” to be published by ROI Communication as a downloadable toolkit for anyone who wishes to design and launch a manager communication initiative. It will be available in November at the ROI Communication website www.roico.com.

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