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

Ridicule

Five ways to connect senior leaders and the workforce through better internal communication.

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. I often come across senior leaders who are out of touch with what really goes on at the coalface. Sycophantic or back-watching direct reports and multi-layer hierarchies are often to blame. But 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.

Encouragingly, research tells us that business performance improves when staff are heard and their feedback acted on – a key plank of internal communication. A Watson Wyatt study of 115 companies (2006, 2008) tells us that companies with highly engaged employees achieve financial performance four times greater than those with poor employee attitudes.

Here I 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 and ask them each to discuss and pinpoint ‘the unspoken challenges that stop the organisation performing to its potential’. These are listed on Post-It notes or shared via iPads (without being attributed to individuals) 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’.

Good external facilitation helps reinforce that the process is truly anonymous and ensures that even politically charged content is surfaced. The resulting dialogue often creates 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 tour of the building, 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 locally and then creating five practical ways to improve performance. They do their thinking while the VIPs are being introduced to staff and the smell of new paint. As the tour ends, leaders hear the reflections and recommendations of the working party. Staff 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. They undertake all of the duties of colleagues at the coalface (as long as that’s not a safety risk). 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. I’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 learned about the need.

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 staff. We often put them in place during change programmes and leave them in place as the change becomes BAU.

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 tried this approach at medical products company HARTMANN.

5. Apps to engage

The rise of digital, mobile and social media have converged to present great new opportunities to connect leaders and the workforce. I’m really excited about the impact these technologies can have on internal communication. Axiom is working on an app to measure engagement, pinpoint who understands what, gauge the mood of the business, and provide a direct line for two-way dialogue between leaders and the workforce. We think it will help boost performance, productivity, focus and retention of talent. If you want to get involved in the early work on this app and shape it to meet your needs, simply reach out.

Wrapping it up

Try these internal communication 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.