Employee Communication: What Works and What Doesn’t

A number of years ago I had lunch with one of my favorite professors from Harvard Business School, Bill Bruns. Bill told me about a fascinating research project he was working on to study internal communications at some of Europe’s largest and most progressive companies. He concluded that one modern wonder was far more important than any other in improving communication at these companies. I bet you can’t guess what it is!

Cheap air tickets! That’s right! Not email, not intranets, not video conferencing. In fact, Bill found that the more managers communicated electronically, the more pressing became the need for face-to-face meetings.

Avoid Emailing Emotions

Email, intranets, texting, voicemail. They’re fine for accelerating the transfer of factual information. But when your communication involves any emotion—such as the expressing of different opinions—a face-to-face meeting is by far the best bet, with a traditional, interactive, phone conversation a distant second choice. Believe me, I’ve irritated enough people to know!

Why is face-to-face communication so important? As we get more efficient at communicating facts electronically, we tend to forget how much emotion we convey through body language and voice tone. For example, as I say with words that I disagree with someone, my tone, my posture, my smile, and my eye contact may at the very same time be saying, “I value and respect your opinion and enjoy working with you, even though I disagree with you on this point.”

Talk in Their Terms

Experts on sales techniques suggest that you talk with prospective customers at the same rate of speech that they talk with you, because people usually like to listen at the same speed that they talk.

Similarly, I find that different people have different preferred methods of communication, and that people often send messages by the way they like to receive them. Some people prefer to communicate in person; others leave a lot of voicemail messages; others use email; others text; and others instant message.

When we hire people from much larger corporations, we find that they often alienate people by relying too heavily on digital communication. In any company or department, communication will be stronger and people will work together better if you can standardize communication methods. 

Shut Up and Communicate!

So much of communicating successfully is listening successfully. And I have to admit this is something I’m not always so good at myself! In fact, I’m terrible at it! All too often I assume I know what the person is going to say even before he says it, so I find it hard to listen to him “repeat” what I have already played in my mind that he is going to say. Unfortunately, even when I correctly anticipate what the other person is going to say, he thinks I am not paying any attention to what he is thinking or saying if I don’t carefully listen to him say every single word and even pause for a couple of seconds afterward to “digest it.”

But it is a skill that can be learned. (Well, at least some of my friends and colleagues hope that I am going to learn to be better at it!) A few years ago I put together a group of eight consultants to create a software package, Adams Streetwise Managing People.

It was fascinating to me that despite their different backgrounds and areas of expertise, the consultants all emphasized the importance of listening in solving a vast array of problems. For example, they often suggested that you first tackle people problems by listening to the employees’ perspective and then paraphrasing it back to them, both to make sure you understand what they said and to emphasize that you care about what they said.

In other words, one of the most important parts of communicating with employees is to very carefully make it clear that you are listening to them and that you value what they say.

Why Meetings Matter!

For the first few years of Adams Media, I tried to avoid holding meetings like the plague—I thought meetings were the ultimate sign of bureaucratic paralysis at larger corporations.

Then I discovered that meetings had some important purposes other than just getting things done—and suddenly I was holding meetings all the time! Meetings can make people feel part of a group, and participative meetings give people a feeling that their opinion can be heard, and that it counts!

A lot of problems in communication come about when employees feel that someone else is either not listening to them or does not value their opinion or, worse, does not value them. And today’s workers expect to know what is going on at their company, how their work fits into the whole picture, and what the future holds in store.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Face-to-face communication can’t be beat.
  • Limit electronic communications to non-emotional facts.
  • Meetings can increase employee engagement.

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.