By Joyce E. A. Russell
Special to The Washington Post
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place" — George Bernard Shaw
Do your employees have a sense of what is going on in your organization?
Recently, a manager told me that in her company, her boss never let her or the team know what he learned from his boss. He didn't "cascade-down" the information coming from the top. The chief executive, however, thought that everything he shared with this leader was being also shared with his staff. So, he was surprised to find out that lower-level employees were not aware of some of the company's policies or news.
This lack of transparency seems to be a common problem in organizations today. Yet, it is increasingly important for leaders to keep their staffs informed. People can't achieve the company's goals if they don't know what they are. They can't get excited about the vision or mission if they haven't been told what it is. They have difficulty planning for the future, an instead, they can seem confused, lost, and misguided when they don't have accurate information. Further, they can feel resentful and angry when they are the last to know or worse — never told what is going on. This makes them feel unimportant and not valued in the firm. In fact, when transparency is low, employees view the organization and leaders with more skepticism and suspicion, leading to a breakdown of trust.
So, what can companies do to achieve transparency of information?
Do not assume that messages shared from the top leader to the next level down are being shared all the way down to the lowest level employee. Make sure to follow up with employees at all levels to see where there may be communication gaps.
Senior-level leaders need to periodically meet or share information with their middle-level managers. Sometimes having face-to-face meetings in addition to news alerts or emails can be very helpful to communicate new initiatives or answer questions. Once middle-level managers know what is going on, they should have similar type meetings with their direct reports to keep them in the loop.
Follow up with leaders to ensure they are sharing accurate information. Use trustworthy leaders to verify what others say. Sometimes a manager might share information with peers or staff, yet it is biased by their own perspective and spin on things that may not be accurate. Verifying the message is important.
Put a system in place to ensure that employees learn what is going on. This could include changes in strategic directions, policies, procedures, among other things. Communicate clearly, concisely and often. While it may seem like you are over communicating, ask your employees what they think. Usually, they will tell you it is not enough.
Share good news along with bad news. Nothing says you have to always share only bad news with employees. They can be inspired hearing positive news about awards, accomplishments, new business deals, etc. They also want to understand financials and how the firm is doing. They can do a better job of helping the firm succeed if they know the challenges the firm is facing.
Use a variety of formats to keep people informed — newsletters, communication boards, blogs, social media, employee town halls or forums, among other methods. Be sure to review these techniques with employees to make sure you are using methods they are actually following or participating in. The higher the level the leader, the more that employees will value face-to-face meetings by him/her. They want to see his or her facial reactions and other nonverbal when delivering messages or asking for input.
Use project or work teams to share information with one another. This is also a good way for them to have the needed information to be successful in doing their work.
Be willing to share candid feedback (both positive and constructive) with employees in a developmental manner. This may mean that some leaders will need training in how to provide this type of feedback.
Periodically ask your employees to rate how informed they feel about the firm's practices, vision, strategic direction, etc. You might think they are well informed, but they may not think so.
Communication is critical for all levels of employees. Research shows that engagement goes up when employees feel they have the necessary information to do their jobs and if they have two-way communication with their managers. In addition, leaders who communicate what is going on to their employees are often seen in a more positive light — they can gain loyalty from their employees. Transparent organizations value open and candid information that enables employees to make more informed decisions. This can benefit both the individual employees and the firm.
Russell is the vice dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Programs offered by the school. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations, and career management.