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How an internal communication strategy can help with the Emperor’s new clothes

By 30th April 2024May 22nd, 2024Blog, Developing communication skills
Man Dressed as a King

Five ways to connect senior leaders and the workforce through an internal communication strategy

We’re all familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s new clothes; a leader who thinks everything is fine and whose followers fail to point out anything to the contrary.

In the business world, this is not a ‘once upon a time’ fairy story. We often come across senior leaders who are out of touch with what really goes on within teams. The biggest culprit of all is poor internal communication. The consequences for leaders, their people and the organisation can be severe: lack of alignment, mistrust, missed opportunities and wasted effort.

Research tells us that business performance improves when colleagues are heard and their feedback acted on – a key plank of internal communication. Here we’ve highlight five successful internal communication solutions we’ve put in place over the years to drive open and candid dialogue between leaders and the workforce.

1. The elephant in the room

We often facilitate ‘elephants’ at conferences and events. We split participants into small groups, asking them each to discuss and pinpoint ‘the unspoken challenges that stop the organisation performing to its potential’. These are listed on Post-It notes, shared via iPads (anonymously) or entered into chat on MS Teams – and then prioritised for action planning. To stop the session turning in to a whinge fest, we add the caveat that ‘these must be things within our gift to solve’. Participants are also encouraged to recommend implementable solutions to the challenges they raise.

Good external facilitation and promoting psychological safety results in open dialogue often creating genuine breakthroughs. With a large pharma we worked with some years ago, we uncovered some deep-seated issues relating to a merger that were subsequently addressed.

2. ‘Royal’ visits

As senior leaders arrive for their ‘Royal’ tour of the building, we recommend you introduce them to a cross-functional working party in a meeting room. This team are tasked with identifying and prioritising the barriers to business success and then creating five practical ways to improve performance. They do their thinking while the VIPs are being introduced to colleagues at the site. As their tour ends leaders go back to the meeting room and hear the reflections and recommendations of the working party. Your people feel they are being heard and leaders get some concrete insights to act on.

3. Back to the floor

Senior leaders are charged with working at the sharp end of the business, usually for a week, not just a quiet afternoon. The aim is to arm them with real-life evidence, not distant observations, on which to base their decisions and plans. We often suggest they are shadowed by a member of staff. Their insights can be recorded via video and edited for use as part of an internal communication campaign. We’ve seen priorities shifted and projects repurposed or even dropped as a consequence of this activity. For example, the complete rewriting of a retail company’s training programme, based on what the leader directly observed whilst on back to the floor visit.

4. Sounding Boards

Sounding Boards are representative groups of employees drawn from different functions, lengths of service and varying degrees of positivity vs. cynicism. In other words, a realistic cross-section of colleagues. We often put Sounding Boards in place during change programmes.

Their task is to help shape how messages are positioned and delivered (not craft the actual messages themselves). Sounding Boards provide excellent advice on how messages could be wrongly interpreted and provide recommendations on how to improve them.

Their feedback is shared with senior leaders, who might only be present at the top and tail of their meetings so participants can do their thinking in an unimpeded way, perhaps with the help of a facilitator. Participants often go on to become real advocates for the change programme. This is something we saw happen when we applied this approach at medical products company HARTMANN.

5. Apps to engage

Mobile and social media are great opportunities to connect leaders and the workforce. We’ve worked on the employee engagement app, ‘Engage’, a tool that measures engagement, pinpoints who understands what, gauges the mood of the business, and provides a direct line for two-way dialogue between leaders and the workforce. It helps boost performance, productivity, focus and retention of talent.

Wrapping it up

Try these techniques and your leaders will be dressed for success – well placed to make well-informed decisions and deliver enhanced performance through a better engaged, informed and motivated workforce. But fail to connect with the workforce, and the business will suffer. And, like the Emperor in the fairy tale, leaders may be open to naked ridicule.