If you go into any organization and do a survey about what leaders are doing well and poorly, the vast majority of groups will put “communication” at the top of the list of things to improve. This is true even though most leaders are nearly consumed trying to keep people in the loop on a daily basis. Why is there such a disconnect between needs and performance?
There are numerous reasons for the gap. First, the magnitude of information that needs to be shared is growing exponentially. With the global markets and worldwide scope of most operations, the complexity is dozens of times more daunting than it was just a decade ago. The ubiquitous access to all kinds of information and misinformation on the internet means that leaders need to unscramble a plate of informational spaghetti on a daily basis. What used to be cells of gossip and rumors quickly becomes a rats nest of damage control when a horde of titillated bloggers or twitterers swings into action.
Corporate communications can no longer be a matter of having a quarterly Town Hall Meeting. Information needs to be disseminated on a continuous basis, and misinformation needs to be beaten down almost hourly. Is it any wonder key executives get bogged down and withdraw to let the “communications officer” handle the mess. Yet when a CEO unplugs from the communication process, this is how people get the idea he is hiding something or he just does not care about telling them the truth. That creates a significant trust problem.
Whew, is there an antidote to this malaise? I think there is. It is a simple remedy that has been known for centuries. It is called “walking the deck,” or if you are a politician, “pressing the flesh.” The trick is for top executives not only to practice the art of interfacing with people, they need to insist that all middle and lower managers do the same thing. This is particularly true when times are tough.
If there is a crisis or emergency, most managers and leaders like to retreat to the safety of their office and communicate electronically. Unfortunately, spewing out long explanations of current realities may seem like progress, but consider how many of the people are reading or understanding these tomes. My advice to leaders is to at least double their shop floor time when times are tough.
If top leaders insist on a culture of talking with workers directly often and insist that all managers in the chain do this routinely then the crushing load of communication can become more manageable. The side benefit is that the workers will not be besieged with a flood of electronic drivel to digest daily.