Effective communication between employees and management is critical for any company hoping to succeed. It requires thinking holistically about what information employees need and identifying the best way to provide it at the right time, and in the right way. But employee communication also requires managers to create space for employees to talk openly about the challenges they face and what they need to succeed. Failing to establish such a two-way flow of information will leave managers without a roadmap for fixing their company’s problems.
What Is Employee Communication?
Employee communication refers to the exchange of information between management and employees. It works best when managers and employees talk openly — about what’s going well and what isn’t.
What Is Employee Communication?
Employee communication is the back-and-forth dialogue or information sharing between management and employees, whether it’s via email, instant messaging, voice or video chat, or in-person conversations. This communication works best when it’s a two-way street of open and honest dialogue.
Active listening is critical to supporting employees in performing their work, but getting it right can be difficult. Many employees complain that their supervisors and managers are always talking at them as opposed to talking with them, said Beth Walter, assistant teaching professor of business communications at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.
Addressing that problem calls for a dialogic communications approach, also known as two-way communication, which involves regular check-ins where managers listen to the other party, ask questions and request employee feedback, even if it may be difficult to hear, Walter told Built In. This can help lay the groundwork for employees to feel comfortable openly exchanging ideas, sharing their concerns, and freely discussing observations with management.
Listening to employees and understanding where they are coming from is a crucial skill for all leaders, but especially for people in management roles, said Chris Westfall, business coach and author of Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results.
By listening, management can connect interpersonally with employees, which in turn can build trust and open communication. And by providing a safe place to have conversations, employees may feel more comfortable talking about the challenges they face, allowing managers to address them faster.
“When people can articulate those challenges, then leaders can lead,” Westfall said.
Open communication can engage and motivate employees, but it requires managers to be authentic and genuine in their discussions, Walter said. For example, many managers have heard the advice to balance constructive criticism with positive feedback, but that doesn’t work if the manager is clearly going through the motions when giving positive feedback.
Why Employee Communication Is Important
A failure to establish an open and honest dialogue with employees can be costly.
Without active listening, managers and executives won’t be able to connect interpersonally with employees and coach them through the challenges preventing them from reaching their full potential. Creating a safe environment for employees to communicate and share ideas is also important for identifying emerging leaders.
“The way that talent often rises to the top is because of their communication skills and the ability to share a vision and create collaboration and connection.”
“The way that talent often rises to the top is because of their communication skills and the ability to share a vision and create collaboration and connection,” Westfall said.
Open and honest communication is also important to minimizing the chances of misunderstandings from employees relying on leaders’ nonverbal cues. Employees pick up on leaders’ nonverbal signals that go along with their verbal communication, Walter said. A leader who inadvertently rolls their eyes every time a team member raises a concern could eventually lead to team members remaining silent. And silence can prove fatal for some companies.
And lastly, employees who feel management could care less about their input, regardless of the topic, are likely to withhold it and are more apt to become disengaged, Westfall said, noting employee engagement scores are a reflection of a company’s culture and communication.
How Has Employee Communication Changed?
Employees’ expectations around communications have changed over the years from a purely top-down one-way approach to one where there is less hierarchy, Walter said.
This trend toward two-way communications versus one comes as more companies are moving to a flatter hierarchy and creating inclusive spaces where people can share perspectives and talk together — a movement that is occurring especially with younger companies and startups, she added.
Employees are also valuing companies where their opinions are heard as they call for leaders to become better listeners, Westfall said.
9 Tips for Effective Employee Communication
- Think about the message — and why it matters
- Know your audience
- Model vulnerability and transparency
- Think about how employees are impacted
- Offer encouragement
- Create informal spaces for bonding
- Work on your delivery
- Ask specific, yet open-ended questions
- Don’t be accusatory
Tips for Effective Employee Communication
Leaders play a role in establishing a culture of openness in employee communications as their communication style sets a tone for the organization. Leaders can take a number of steps to elevate their employee communication from zeroing in on purpose to instituting a virtual water cooler.
Think About What You Need to Say, and Why
The most important step to take — and one that is surprisingly overlooked with great frequency — is considering communication purpose, said Ajit Kambil, global CFO Program research director for Deloitte and author of Elevate Your Leadership Communication Strategies and also the recently released book The Leadership Accelerator: The Playbook for Transitioning into Your New Executive Role.
“The starting point is to really understand what the purpose is with your communication,” he said. “You need to show them why it matters and what’s in it for them.”
Knowing the purpose of your communication, you can then move on to considering the best way to deliver it. For example, you could deliver the message yourself or have it delivered by an influential player in the organization, Kambil said.
But once the communication has been delivered to employees, Kambil said, it’s important to get feedback. Did employees emerge with the takeaways you intended or could you have improved your message delivery?
Know Your Audience
It’s also important to know your audience, said Insiya Hussain, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.
“You need to understand the needs, desires and motivations of the people you’re engaging with. This can help you adjust your delivery, word choice and even the message itself, so your message lands well and you can create win-win situations,” she added.
Active listening is also key to elevating your communication skills with the workforce, showing you heard what they are saying and validating their feelings, Hussain said. It lowers employees’ defenses without necessarily having to agree with them.
For example, if an employee says they are really angry no one shows up to meetings on time, a leader could respond, “it sounds like you are frustrated.”
Model Transparency and Vulnerability
Transparency and vulnerability is key to effective communication, Westfall told Built In: “Openness and honesty is always the best way to build trust when relaying news or initiatives that are hard to hear,” he said, noting a lack of trust can lead to disengagement and difficulty with retention.
Think About How Employees Are Impacted
It’s also important to take into account the impact of the communicated message on the employee, as well as the people who surround that employee, such as family members and colleagues. For example, when announcing layoffs, acknowledge the impact to not only the employees affected but also their families, he added.
Encouragement is another important skill to master. “As leaders, we so rarely look in the direction of encouragement,” Westfall said. “We’re always correcting and tamping things down. But when it comes to helping people to be more efficient, encouragement is key.”
Create Informal Spaces for Bonding
Virtual water coolers can create another communication avenue and community building exercise for leaders and their employees, Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told Built In.
A leader could spend 20 minutes with a small group of three or four randomly selected employees to have an informal, unstructured chat, Choudhury said. Senior leaders could spend 20 minutes a week at the virtual water cooler and ultimately speak to anyone and everyone at the organization, he said, adding it would greatly benefit new and young employees who often do not have as much opportunity to communicate with senior leaders.
Work on Your Delivery
For leaders who dread video conference calls and find they adopt a mannequin-like persona when on camera, some companies have hired actors to teach senior executives how to be authentic on-camera as they are in-person, Choudhury said.
Ask Open-Ended, Specific Questions
One way to help encourage an environment where people feel they can speak freely is to ask open-ended questions rather than ones that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” Walter said.
“By asking a specific, open-ended question, you’ve invited people into the conversation and, at that point, they’ll know you care about what they are thinking.”
For example, rather than ask whether a project will meet its deadline, which can be answered simply in the affirmative or negative, try a different approach. Ask what specific challenges an employee is facing with the project and the various scenarios of how it could affect meeting the deadline.
“By asking a specific, open-ended question, you’ve invited people into the conversation and, at that point, they’ll know you care about what they are thinking,” Walter said.
Avoid Accusatory Comments
Leaders, during difficult discussions, should communicate in a way that preserves the employer-employee relationship and makes everyone feel better after the exchange, Insiya Hussain, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, told Built In.
Accusatory communication can set a leader up for conflict and spark the employee’s defensiveness. Instead, adopt a more neutral language and focus on your own thoughts and feelings, she advised. For instance, instead of saying something along the lines of the employee is so inconsiderate of everyone’s time for being late, try taking the approach that you are worried the work won’t be completed for the day if the meetings don’t start on time.