Are We All We Are – Employee engagement through bottom up communication

When employees are fully empowered, they become advocates for the company’s vision, and are in a stronger position to further the goals of the organization.

In the large board room, the Communication Manager, the Head of Global Communications and I look like midgets sunken to our overstuffed leather chairs. On a movie screen in front of us, the Director of Internal Communication is video conferencing from her office across the Atlantic Ocean. Everybody is tired at the end of the day in the middle of a long, cold winter.

Leadership, motivation, performance, team building fly like bullets during our conversation, pieces of a puzzle we are frantically trying to put together. I am informed that the market is becoming increasingly tough, and that the organization is undergoing many changes affecting the men and women behind it (hence my presence in the meeting). “We need to be ready at the starting blocks,” I hear. In three months, a revolutionary new product will be launched to change the world, with high hopes of outperforming previous best sellers. “We need everyone on board right now, to be engaged, to support our vision,” says the Director of Internal Communication with a tint of exasperation and hope.

In preparation for the meeting I have been reviewed the organization’s internal communication efforts to date. All I found is a collection of pictures of VPs dressed in Merona suits, holding awards, cutting ribbons, and smiling in front of soft backgrounds. Somehow it feels like looking at a caste system of politicians. A sense of “disconnect” pervades my instincts.

My question goes off, “Based on the information I have reviewed so far I have the impression that most of your internal communication originates from management. I just do not know who your employees are, what they think, or how they are represented in your business. Am I totally off or is this an issue we need to discuss?”

As I am trying to gain a better understanding of the organization, I observe the people in the room hurdling my inquisitiveness like Olympic athletes in a 400 meter race. Am I being too direct? Am I touching a sensitive spot? Do they actually know? After a bit of dodging and twisting, the Director of Internal Communication surrenders with a “Yep.”

Internal communication is the function responsible for effective communication in the workplace. Excellent internal communication has a phenomenal positive impact throughout all business functions: it lowers operational costs, delivers outstanding customer experiences, leverages the leadership and creative potential of human resources, and creates harmonious workplaces where people actually want to be.

A component of internal communication deals with strategic messages and the appropriate channels through which communicate them; I often refer to this as the “visible iceberg”. The “invisible iceberg” (the more significant part below the water’s surface), on the other hand, comprises the intricate system of human interactions shaping an organization’s destiny. The visible and invisible pieces are both important, and yet the emphasis is often put solely on the what, when, where and how to communicate. With minimal awareness of productive interpersonal relationships, however, no real exchange of ideas may occur, much less the creation of a participatory corporate culture.

People who are not engaged, motivated and happy are hardly strong performers. They do what they do because they are told to, and are prone to making careless mistakes and to voicing out their frustration with colleagues and the world. Many large organizations are perceived as being faceless, unfeeling workplaces where “my point of view” is ignored. The facelessness of management is perceived when employees experience downward communication, in which a disconnect with higher uppers means that their ideas and contributions are neither acknowledged nor validated.

Internal communication is often a top-down distillation of the managerial achievements of self-proclaimed leaders hoping to be followed. While it’s great to think that employees are a tweet away from the CEO –Jeff Thoughts, Talk to Mark, Ask Jim may help humanize top management- the real question is whether management is actually listening to Matt in customer service and Christine at the reception desk. Is everyone in the conversation? Do all opinions count?

When internal communication becomes a fearful “they” versus “we”, it is time to work on bottom up communication. In the post-Enron era, employees are cynical and critical (as most stakeholders are), and demand participation in the corporate conversation. When employees are fully empowered, they become advocates for the company’s vision, and are in a stronger position to further the goals of the organization.

It’s not just me listening to you and implementing what you want me to, in the name of leadership. Productive professional and personal relationships happen when equal contributions are made. People want real conversations and they want to be heard, and in the absence of true dialogue their opinions will be voiced regardless, and amplified through the grapevine of social media. So, how to avoid the grapevine? Be real, ask what people think. Listen at their level, because employees are an endless source of solutions to organizational problems when brought into the conversation.

As I am driving home, I envision my directors of communication with a big smile next time I meet with them. On the radio, Pink sings the perfect soundtrack to our meeting at the top of her lungs:

We are the people that you’ll never get the best of
Not forget the rest of, rest of
We’ve had our fill, we’ve had enough, we’ve had it up to here
Are we all we are
Are we all we are