E-Mail Announcements Are Not Enough

June 20, 2010

The number one complaint in most organizations is lack of good communication from management. Too many managers believe that putting out an announcement in an e-mail is adequate communication. Unfortunately it is not – not by a long margin.  Information needs to be communicated in numerous forums and in various ways to accommodate the learning styles of all people and reinforce the message. An e-mail announcement is  good thing to do because it is in writing and has a specific date for revision purposes. Beyond that, it is a mistake to think proper communication has happened by posting an e-mail. 

The hit rate of people actually understanding and absorbing the words in an e-mail is often below 50%.  Some estimates are as low as 10% in terms of getting people to absorb complex or detailed information. Reason: people tend to skim e-mail communication or not even open it due to the sheer volume of information flying by on the computer every hour (note, we used to say every day). So, when managers say, “I cannot understand why people are confused, I put out an e-mail explaining the process,” they reveal that their own clueless meter is running on empty.

In the Edelman 2010 Trust Barometer, Richard Edelman points out that the trend is for people to insist on multiple exposures to information before they start to believe it. This is a result of the low level of trust in business worldwide fueled by confusing signals coming from management in the past. Smart managers communicate important information in 3-5 different ways, yet numerous managers continue to believe one e-mail is good communication. 

My good friend and communications expert, Tim Hayes, calls this phenomenon the “single cannon shot mentality,” or the idea that you can win a war with a single shot. Tim says,  “Communications professionals know better.  We know human nature.  We know that people just aren’t that perceptive.  Or alert.  Or interested.  Or smart.  You don’t win a war with a single cannon blast.  It takes lots of cannon, air cover, artillery and infantry.  It takes repetition.  Establishing the most relevant and persuasive messaging based on careful research and insightful writing, then sending it out to the most appropriate audiences over and over.  Consistency and constancy win this race”  ( T. Hayes, BLOG entry dated 9/28/2009). 

Below I identify some of the communications options available in addition to a standard e-mail announcement. Note, these are only a dozen of the possibilities. Creative leaders will think of unique ways of communicating that fit the individual situation. 

1. Short Informational Videos – These quick-hit communication bullets are super for amplifying a written announcement. For example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8ycThI1Gcg   

2. Podcasts – These audio files allow the manager to give information in a more user friendly format that people actually pay attention to. For example:  www.leadergrow.com/Podcast-Upgraded-for-Article.mp3

3. Website references – Augmenting an e-mail with a website entry explaining the key points in another format gives the ability to highlight information in a corporate context. For example: http://www.leadergrow.com/TRUST9e.png  

4. Use graphics rather than words or use Attached files – A simple diagram can be an effective augment to an e-mail describing complex issues. If a diagram is not in the e-mail itself, an attachment is often an effective way to amplify the message in ways people can print out and remember better than a lot of text. For example:

5. Webinars – Interactive online conferences are becoming more prevalent for sharing information in a virtual world. They work well because they are real-time and can have a very broad participation.

 6. Voice Mail Meaasges – these can be quick and simple, but they allow another chance to amplify a message if done with care and infrequently. 

7. Conference Calls and video conferencing – Conference calls have been used for decades and are effective at getting dialog on the issues from a diverse and geographically decentralized population.  Adding video to conference calls is now available to the masses with services such as SKYPE. 

8. Hard copy memos – You might use a kind of post-card memo that contains the important considerations in an announcement. It is something that can be put on a person’s bulletin board for future reference. For Example:

9. Town Hall Meetings or other Physical Presentation Modes – These face-to face meetings allow for interaction on questions for clarification. 

10. Cascade communication in small groups. This format requires a kind of “press kit” to be prepared so all levels of management are giving the same information. Often these small group meetings allow for feedback up the chain on potential concerns. 

11. One-on-one discussions – In extremely complex or sensitive areas it may be best to meet personally with each individual in the group and explain the significance of an announcement. 

12. Feedback Surveys – This method gets tangible data on how well people have absorbed the message. Surveys should be quick, user friendly, and anonymous for the most accurate information. 

Good communication involves not only sharing information; it is about obtaining understanding and buyin. Using multiple forms of communication can help managers reach more people with a more complete package of information that will create a lasting and positive impression.


Leadership Barometer 54 The Impact of a Culture of High Trust

November 9, 2009

Over the past 20 years, I have taught Business and Leadership at seven universities, along with several hundred corporate and professional groups.

One thing that has disappointed me is the discussion of corporate culture in most of the MBA textbooks. They usually leave out the most important parts of culture. This topic has fascinated me for years.

The success and longevity of any organization is directly linked to its culture. We sometimes notice the parts that make up culture, but often they are transparent because they are just a part of doing business in a particular group.

If we stop to think about what defines culture and work to manage or influence it, we can uncover some powerful leadership leverage.
Most of the Leadership textbooks I have read describe the culture in terms of physical attributes that characterize an organization.

For example, here is a typical list of the things purported to make up a company culture.

1. Physical structure
2. Language and symbols
3. Rituals, ceremonies, gossip, and jokes
4. Stories, legends, and heroes
5. Beliefs
6. Values and norms
7. Assumptions

The above list is a montage of the lists in several textbooks. When you think about it, these items do go a long way toward defining the culture of an organization.

Unfortunately, I believe these items fall short, because they fail to include the emotions of the people. After all, organizations are made up of people, at all levels, interacting in a social structure for a purpose.

Let us extend the list of things that make up the culture of an organization to include how the people feel.

1. Is there a high level of trust within the organization?
2. To what extent do people have the opportunity to grow in this organization?
3. Do people feel safe and secure, or are they basically fearful?
4.  How do people treat each other on their own level and on higher or lower levels?
5. Is the culture inclusive or exclusive?
6. Do people generally feel like winners or losers at work?
7.  Is the culture one of reinforcement or punishment?
8.  Are managers viewed as enablers or barriers?
9. Are people trying to get into the organization or trying to get out?
10. What is the level of satisfaction for people in this organization?
11. Can people “speak their truth” without fear of reprisal?
12. Do people follow the rules or find ways to avoid following them?

I could go on with another 20-30 things that relate to the human side of culture. I hope you agree that the items above are at least as important as the items on the first list in terms of describing the culture.

Why then do most textbooks on leadership not mention them when they discuss culture? It baffles me.

Perhaps the view is that these “people-centered” items are best discussed separately and only the “system-centered” items define the culture. Personally, I do not agree with that.

Let’s zoom in on just one item of my list above: item #1. The level of trust in an organization is actually the most significant part of the culture, in my opinion.

The reason I put Trust in the front and center of culture is that with high trust, all of the other things (rituals, ceremonies, values, language, etc.) work to engage people in the business. With low trust, you can have all the trappings, but people will laugh at you behind your back.

You are probably familiar with the CEO who spouts out the values at every chance, but does not live them, so there is no trust. The values are just a useless pile of words.

In fact, they are worse than useless, because every time the CEO mentions the values it reminds people what a hypocrite he or she is.

Why is Trust so powerful? Let’s contrast a few dimensions for a company with high trust versus one with low trust to view the impact.

Problems

All organizations have a steady stream of problems. If the culture is one of low trust, each problem represents a high hurdle to overcome. We have to stop everything and have a meeting to figure out who said what and try to unscramble the mess. We also have to contend with the interpersonal squabbles that are part of a low trust culture.

If there is high trust, first of all there will be fewer problems, but then the remaining problems are easily overcome, like pebbles in the road we kick aside with our shoe. We can focus energy on the vision rather than the problems.

Any problems will be resolved quickly, and the solutions will be of higher quality, because people will not be afraid to voice their creative ideas.

Communication

In groups with low trust, trying to communicate is like walking on eggs. Every word or phrase is a potential trigger for a sarcastic remark. Things are frequently taken the wrong way and create damage to control.

With high trust, communication seems easy. People have the ability to “hear between the lines” and the instinctively know the intent of the message even if the words come out wrong. Employees are not coiled and ready to strike anytime there is an opportunity.

Focus

In areas of low trust, people are focusing on protecting themselves or bringing other people down. Most of the energy is directed inward to the organization in numerous battles that really don’t help the organization succeed.

If trust is high, people are feeling aligned, so their focus is outward at the opportunities (customers) or threats (competition). This shift in focus from inward battles to outward opportunities is huge in terms of organizational success.

Rumors

When trust is low, rumors spring up due to poor communication. Since there is nothing to retard them, they take on a life of their own. The rumors and gossip spread like wildfire all over the organization creating significant damage control for management.

In areas of high trust, there will still be rumors from time to time, but they will be easily extinguished before they do significant damage. This is because people believe management when they say something is not true.

Attitude

Look at the people in an organization of low trust; what is their general attitude? Usually it is one of apathy. They need their job in order to live, but they dearly wish it wasn’t such a struggle.

Now look at the attitude of people in an organization of high trust. You will see passion and motivation to really help the organization succeed. The difference here is huge in terms of organizational survival.

For one thing, customers notice the difference immediately. You know the feeling of sitting in a restaurant where the trust level between management and the servers is low. You get an uncomfortable feeling and may net even realize why you decide to not patronize the place again.

Impact

With these differences, the result when workers have high trust has been shown by several authors is that they are between 2-5 times more productive than low trust groups.

Think of the number of organizations where managers are constantly feeling under-staffed.  “We need more people,” is the common phrase.  My retort is that it is a leadership problem. What you need is not more people, but better leaders who know how to build a great culture of trust.

We could go on with numerous more examples of the difference between a culture of high trust and low trust, and that is only the first item on the list above. I hope it is obvious that having the right kind of culture makes all the difference in the ability to survive in business. Take the time and energy to work on your culture; the ROI is astronomical.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Mr. Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, , and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.