The author, Stephen Yolland
Or USING THE SIX VITAL PRINCIPLES OF INTERNAL COMMUNICATION TO MOTIVATE YOUR STAFF
Either title works.
This is an article I first wrote some years ago. Coming across it by chance, not only does it still stack up well, (with a very little judicious editing) but sadly, I do not see the ideas in it being understood or implemented, at least not to any great degree.
Which is shame. Because this article is the distillation of some 35 years very successful experience in both management and communications – both internal and external – working with some of Australia’s leading organisations across a vast gamut of industry and public life.
If you are a senior executive, there is gold in this article. What you do when you’ve read it? Well, that’s entirely up to you.
Enough said, let’s go:
In any modern organisation, the power relationship of the executive and management team vis-a-vis the rest of the company has changed radically in recent years.
Many people will argue that that the primary responsibility of the boss or bosses is to shareholders, stakeholders and owners.
And that job is important, no doubt.
But if a happy and productive group of employees is the best possible way to ensure a viable and growing return on investment, then it follows that an executive’s first priority, logically, must be to create the environment that will deliver that type of workforce.
We all pay lip service to that principle. But “How?” is the question.
RE-THINKING THE BOSS’S ROLE
It is a cliche to point out that just as any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so any organisation is only as strong as the motivation and skills of its entire range of employees.
So in smart organisations today, executives are not appointed to “rule the roost”, but to guide and advise those around them and that means looking both up and down the corporate ladder.
Today, executives are making decisions and taking actions, in effect, as “ruling delegates” of the company’s entire staff – on their behalf, and in pursuit of greater harmony, efficiency and productivity.
“I’m warning you. If we tell them why we chose the coffee supplier we did there’ll be no damn end to it. It’ll be executive salary packages they want oversight of next, you mark my words.”
If one accepts that this is a healthy and effective model of modern corporate leadership, then it also follows that staff have an innate right – a need, in fact – to understand the activities of the executives that run their lives, and in detail if they so desire, or if it will help them perform their job role.
THE PRINCIPLE OF TRANSPARENCY
To achieve this, executives must thoroughly adopt a mindset that a matter is available to all to know, unless there are strong reasons of legality or personal confidence why that should not be so.
This reversal of the norm that applies in most organisations inevitably produces a markedly different result to the alternative mindset, which is, of course, that everything is innately confidential unless an argument is made that it should be public.
This extends to matters that appear that they should be confidential, but in reality need not be.
“I think they’re all gone. Quick, let’s take the chance to move the parking space allocation around a bit.”
Many matters are held tightly to the chest when in reality good things would result from them being made public at an early stage, and more thoroughly.
I once knew a 20+ year employee leave a company (and he was a good employee, too) because they moved his car park space without asking him politely if he minded. I kid you not.
It wasn’t the car park space that pissed him off, it was the secrecy with which it was handled.
Suddenly a thousand tiny resentments at a secretive management team boiled over, and off he went, taking his wit, wisdom and priceless knowledge with him.
Also: think clearly. You know that the free flow of ideas, suggestions, warnings and information is enhanced by a reduction in confidentiality.
That is why democracies, for all their faults, operate more efficiently than totalitarian states, and are inevitably more stable in the long term.
But the assumption that no-one else really has any right (or need) to know what “we” are doing is usually entrenched and often difficult to over-turn. It belongs to an older and more cynical age, when capital and labour were permanently locked in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and mutual blame, but many executives today still live in that paradigm.
Confidentiality – the knee-jerk, unthinking assumption of confidentiality – is a cancer.
It grows inside our organisations, eating away at our vitals, until we reach the oft-quoted situation that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. In the resulting confusion, people are often unwittingly working actively against each other, duplicating effort at best, and stymieing each other at worst.
In fact, confidentiality can become such a corporate habit, that the left hand sometimes doesn’t even know that the right hand exists.
Confidentiality is also a drug. It entices and bewitches those who have it within their grasp to conceal matters.
Why? That’s easy. To hold confidential information is to be of the inner circle. To be “in the know”.
And whether or not knowledge really is power (which it undoubtedly sometimes is) it is certainly a heady brew for many. And it produces workplaces that are excessively “political” and internally competitive.
So: the solution to all this nonsense is simply to reverse the paradigm.
We should make people argue on a case-by-case basis that people should NOT know something, with the highest possible requirement for any such argument to be very convincing, rather than requiring people to prove that others should know before information is routinely made public.
“I don’t want you to feel threatened, but there’s a guy in the next building who I’ve been told has a really good idea.”
Just as one example of this style of thinking: why should any team meeting be routinely “closed” to “non-members” of the group who are having the meeting?
Why, indeed, should it not be actively advertised, with all those who feel they have useful input invited to attend?
Yes, yes, yes. One can instantly sense busy executives shuddering at the thought of endlessly extended meetings – as if we don’t all have enough of those already – enthusiastically infested by the eternal committee-sitters that are so easily identifiable in any organisation.
But restricting meetings to an elite few is not the solution to that problem.
Rather, the solution to THAT problem is to have meetings that have clear and concise agendas, chaired by people who are skilled at controlling wafflers and time wasters.
Or in other words, it’s better to have one waffling air-bag punctured in public than to have one staff member who actually has the answer to a problem excluded from contributing because no-one thought to ask them along to the meeting.
Here again, the democratic principle is a useful guide: Councils and Parliaments, for example, all have “Stranger’s Galleries”, and the most stringent conditions have to be met for those galleries to be cleared and for the body to go into secret session.
And needless to say, on those occasions when a cabal or clique is seeking to do the wrong thing, then corporate governance is enhanced when more people know what’s going on.
Which leads us neatly to:
THE PRINCIPLE OF PRO-ACTIVITY
In order to give meaning to the first principle, (instead of merely adopting it as a high-minded ideal that means very little in practice), there should be an assumption that a company’s bodies will make every effort to disseminate information pro-actively, straining every sinew to ensure that information reaches the further possible point of the corporate family in a timely and easily-understood manner.
“Goodness me yes, I’m pro-active. I sometimes even shout at them BEFORE they need it, just to keep the little blighters on their blessed toes.”
The leaders of organisations should critique their efforts in this regard, constantly testing to see whether such pro-activity is genuine, thoughtful, enthusiastic and effective.
Where this requires extra effort or expenditure, such burdens should be managed with equanimity, secure in the knowledge that what is being done is vital to the health and growth of the organisation, rather than a tiresome annoyance.
The goal should be to seek out the gifts of the widest possible audience as early as possible in any decision-making process, content that the best advice is frequently commonsense, and that commonsense frequently appears from the least-expected quarter, and frequently from outside the management team. (See: How to save eight million bucks by spending twenty.)
But of course, there is no point doing this unless organisations also adhere to:
THE PRINCIPLE OF SIMPLICITY
Information that is convoluted, partial, or badly explained is less useful that no information at all. It will cause misunderstanding and confusion, leading to mistrust and disputation.
As a logical consequence, every effort should be made to reduce unnecessary and tortuous prolixity, the purpose of such verbiage merely being, as far as one can ascertain, as much to obscure as it is to enlighten.
Simple enough for you?
Or in other words, use fewer words.
And then communicate those words briskly and effectively. By embracing …
THE PRINCIPLE OF PROFESSIONALISM
If the foregoing principles are to succeed, then executives should seek out the best means possible to disseminate the information available, constantly critiquing performance in this area to check that other, more powerful mechanisms or technologies have not presented themselves as a better way to get things over to people.
And every communications item, whatever its medium, should be attractive and engaging, properly laid out and presented, or well performed, well-written, enticing, intriguing, and informative, and avoid unnecessary legalism, conventionalism, and conservatism.
“You want me to upload a video to our intranet website and send out an EDM to everyone at one minute to 9 so they start their day by watching it? And then copy the video to their partners on their home email with a polite explanatory note asking them to a company celebration? Yessir, Mr Hopgood, Sir.”
So here’s the homework. If you apply these standards to how your organisation works, how are you doing?
Bear in mind that any changes that organisations adopt will amount to a hill of beans, and a small hill at that, unless every decision taken is consciously subjected to the following checklist:
- The matter we are discussing can anyone see any compelling reason why everyone shouldn’t know about this?
- How can we best let the largest number of people know about it, and as quickly as possible at that?
- What is the simplest, clearest way we can present the information?
- What will be the most effective medium for transmission?
- Do we know what we’re trying to achieve?
- Have we made it easy and effective for people to respond?
If leaders are prepared to sign up to these principles as a guide, then work can begin promptly on the changes necessary to begin implementing them in a practical way.
As a first step, these principles could be “read into the minutes” of a Board, for example, and formally adopted as the principles by which the organisation’s peak bodies operate.
The next step would be to implement a communications program to have these principles understood by all management, and, in turn, by the staff as a whole, and to decide what impact the principles have on the way communication flow happens within the organisation.
But we have to be clear about one thing.
Effective communication is not a mechanical issue. It is a state of mind.
If anyone senior in an organisation has any serious reservations about adopting this style of management, and also has the power to “white ant” the process as soon as it gets underway, then there’s simply no point worrying about the “how to”.
Because it is clear that, like most things, achieving genuine progress in internal communications requires real visionary leadership.
So ask yourself: are you that leader?
Stephen Yolland is a businessman and business consultant working primarily in Melbourne, Australia, and also in the United States, Malaysia, China, and Britain. He lectures on matters of business interest and is a sought after public speaker on business, marketing and other topics. He has worked in a variety of senior roles in sales, marketing and advertising for 35 years, and is the founder of and major contributor to the Wellthisiswhatithink blog. He is also a popular commentator on political and civics issues, and is a published poet.