In many organizations, the amount of attention given to anything new coming from the CEOs office is inversely proportional to how much employees hear the same old acronyms, jargon, esoteric terms and cliched aspirational language.
For example, consider the verb “strive,” which practically no one uses in day-to-day conversation. In reality, low-hype, high-substance communication using organic language competes for attention best.
Here’s an example of one such reboot: At one client organization, the company president wrote a column each week on an important topic, which was posted to the intranet. The columns averaged 8-10 paragraphs. As you’d expect, while the president chose the theme each week, a (very good) executive speechwriter wrote the actual content. So it was always well-written and even reflected the leader’s voice. But it’s unlikely that many of the organization’s 20,000 employees believed that their senior leader was sitting at his laptop banging out polished paragraphs every week. Which might help to explain the disappointing readership: Metrics showed that only 10 percent of employees clicked on the column each week.
We suggested the leader switch to a blog, with shorter posts (one, maybe two, breezy, conversational paragraphs), a few times per week. Additionally, the leader created and posted short videos, most of them shot on his iPad, where he answered questions that employees sent in. Nothing slick. Nothing polished. Readership quickly quadrupled.
Leaders can’t expect employees to pick out and pay attention to their genuinely essential messages if they’ve flooded the information marketplace with cheap imitations. But lots of organizations push out communications to their employees like a Soviet factory — uncoordinated, undisciplined, and without regard to the actual demands or needs of production. This misguided activity often flows from good intentions: “We just did something, and it’s important to communicate. So, let’s communicate this to everyone.”
In other cases, leaders make supply-side communication choices for narcissistic reasons, because it makes them feel good; for example, to show off all the essential stuff they’re doing: “I just got asked to lead an important initiative that will have a meaningful enterprise-wide impact two years from now. Everyone must understand that NOW!” Never mind the absence of any business case for producing that awareness.
In other cases, excess communication supply follows excess production capacity: “We have an expensive editing suite, so for goodness sake, let’s make some videos.”
Uncoordinated, undisciplined, supply-side communication choices — instead of producing “fully informed employees” — create an environment where employees ignore most of the information delivered through formal channels while wondering what is happening… and what messages they really ought to align with and pay attention to. This undermines a leaders ability to get employees engaged around efforts to promote the organization’s long-term business interests.
What’s the alternative? Coordinated, disciplined, demand-driven communication practices. Tight message discipline. Embracing “less is more.” Recognizing that every message of secondary importance has the potential to diminish a message of primary concern. Sometimes, deciding to keep these messages out of the organization’s information marketplace can be the best decision.
Jeff Grimshaw Tanya Mann, Lynne Viscio, and Jennifer Landis are principals at MGStrategy. For two decades they’ve helped leaders measure and manage culture as a source of competitive advantage. Their book is Five Frequencies: Leadership Signals That Turn Culture Into Competitive Advantage.