The value of communications during change

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this: “It’s a great place to work, but the leaders there communicate too much relevant information. They tell us about growth plans, and marketing challenges, and changes that are coming, and how it affects us. It’s too much. I wish they would stop.”

It rarely happens, if ever.

Ten years ago, when we integrated a leadership practice into our public relations firm, we did so on the premise that an organization’s communication strategy is typically a reflection with its leadership and its values.

But we’ve found a more practical, day-to-day connection between the two disciplines: Most leadership problems are rooted in poor communication. This can be particularly true – and especially pronounced – during periods of rapid change or growth. For many, change causes anxiety. Add “the great unknown” on top of change, and you’ve got a recipe for major discontent.

Internal communication is one of the biggest blind spots for leaders, according to two professors at Duke University, whose class I was privileged to take. Usually, it’s unintentional.

Many leaders are so focused on strategy and execution, they overlook their closest allies; they don’t incorporate it into their blueprint. Some assume that if their inner circle knows something, then “everyone knows.” Some believe their employees don’t want to be bothered with information.

But the most common thinking among leaders is, “Didn’t we already tell them in a memo three months ago? What more do they want?”

That may have worked at your grandfather’s workplace, when employees didn’t feel it was their place to ask questions; or when change came at a slower pace; or when people weren’t distracted and inundated with information.

But it doesn’t work today. Internal communication – especially about change – isn’t a one-and-done activity. It’s an ongoing activity. Ideally, it reaches across multiple channels – online, in person, video, print – and through multiple messengers. It shouldn’t be one-way. Effective leaders offer information, but they also open themselves for questions and feedback, whether it’s during town halls, brown-bag lunches, online, or some other forum. Strong communication is a continuous loop.

Recently during a training session for organizations that are undergoing major change, I asked about the biggest challenges they faced: culture, processes, scale, finances, focus, et cetera. Internal communication won by a landslide.

Obviously, this isn’t a revelation. So why don’t we start? More to the point, why would we ever stop?

Russ Florence is a partner at Schnake Turnbo Frank.