Confused communications

Want to communicate effectively with staff? Try engaging with them

Late last year I judged internal communication strategy entries for three different sets of annual awards run by Personnel Today, PR Week and for the Institute of Public Relations. In all I sifted through about 200 entries, so it should be safe to assume that I had a window on the state of the art of internal communications. ‘What was the view like?’, I hear you yelling from spartanly upholstered HR director’s chairs.

There were two clear categories of entry together with a handful of piss-takers who had stuffed an envelope with whatever came to hand the night before the submission date expired.

Communication as coercion

The first category, comprising the vast majority, were clearly entrants for a different category altogether, namely the internal marketing campaign. There were dozens of often impressively crafted ‘tell and sell’ campaigns, whose success criteria seemed to be:

  • the forging of messages about the issue to hand
  • the deployment of the messages via a battery of media and channels
  • in some, research of ‘stakeholder’ understanding to see if the ‘audience’ got the message as packaged by the powers that be.

A tiny minority (let’s call them the ‘engagers’), set the business context and described the business (and occasionally the social) outcomes attributed to the communications initiative. They also betrayed a much more interesting take on the meaning of internal communications beyond the ‘market the message’ philosophy of the internal marketers. The engagers did this by having a view about what real staff engagement should feel and look like.

So what’s the difference between the internal marketers and engagers?

The internal marketers are, almost without exception, operating in organisations where a strong command-and-control leadership culture pervades, and in which a tiny minority decide on any changes to vision, strategy, product or service.

Most leadership cultures are fundamentally like this, despite some nodding towards the latest leadership fad. The tell-tale sign of the command-and-control culture is the profusion of military and religious expressions used to describe a communication process with staff. Look out for words and phrases like ‘mobilise’, ‘cascade’, ‘brief’, ‘campaign’, ‘capture hearts and minds’, ‘leading from the front’, ‘consistency of message among the troops at the front line’, and so on.

In organisations where command-and-control leadership is prevalent, internal communication is used as a tool to help maintain the command and control of the many by the few. Communication programmes in this category almost universally paint a picture of a V-shaped campaign in which the top attempts to get its latest ideas, strategy, vision, change process, etc, adopted by as many people as possible. The focus is on articulating and then deploying messages by mass media, relentless technology and the now ubiquitous roadshow type of ‘egotainment’. Here, middle managers are flattered to get a day off to massage the giant egos of corporate captains at costly events which have as much lasting impact as most off-site training. And in the command-and-control culture few in-house HR chiefs or internal communicators feel able to point out that repeating the cycle of superficially entertaining change communication simply reinforces the existing culture.

This is not to say that command and control is all bad. Far from it. There will always be situations where command and control executed with discipline and speed, are required to save an organisation or to propel it into a change that the leader knows is essential. But it does not necessarily follow that ‘tell-and-sell’ type communication is the best way to implement the change required.

In the past 50 years, command and control has been the dominant leadership style. But it has failed to keep up with the huge social changes that have made employees less willing to accept instructional management styles and hungry to be implicated in changing their work for the better.

So how should organisations be communicating with employees?

Communication to engage

The engagers set their award submissions squarely in the context of the business issue and define the communication process differently to the internal marketers as follows:

1 To involve or not to involve? At least ask the question.

For the engagers the communication process starts at the genesis of the business issue. This involves getting the sponsors of the issue or change programme to consider if and how staff will add value to the decision-making process at the outset, as opposed to them simply being the target audiences of a change that has been created in an ivory tower and communicated at them in the ‘tell-and-sell’ mode of the internal marketers.

It is not a question of all involvement being good; rather it is a question of whether value will be added if up front involvement makes for a better solution. This question rarely gets asked by the command and controllers. And when it does it is usually done so to make people feel that they have been involved.

Of course, the price of good involvement is time and investment in sound process and great facilitation and ‘closing’ skills. The questions which organisations need to ask when considering real involvement are:

  • will the outcome be better if we involve?
  • do we have good facilitation skills in the line?
  • can we manage the programme in the time available?
  • does the board understand what it will take?

It is also worth noting that quite often the real problem lies with the executive level managers or the board. The chief executive or sponsor of the change may need to first to get their own immediate team on side. I find that engaging these groups in this is best done by using well-structured scenarios where the team is divided and cast into the shoes of a competitor or predator.

2 How do we ‘normally’ engage people in change?

In planning how to engage the wider community in the proposed issue or change, the engagers will avoid the temptation of using the well oiled campaign communications machine, which may already be in place, and will first ask representatives of those who need to be engaged to diagnose what normally happens when the organisation wants to change.

In the stories of how change communication usually happens lie the insights about what really ignites and engages people. This can be contrasted with the coping strategies staff use to show appropriate levels of eagerness and compliance to avoid change when it is shoved down their throats.

These diagnostic sessions take place face-to-face with the staff groups concerned. Paper-based research will reveal none of these insights. They allow the engagers to design an engagement process which involves individuals and groups rather than communicates at them.

No-one who wants to bring about change through engaging staff should underestimate the reactionary power of an established communication apparatchik, particularly one which has enjoyed a degree of past success. Their instincts will be to communicate or engage in the way that has brought them success. In so doing they will be repeating patterns of communicating which reinforces the status quo, rather than creating an appetite for change in everyone.

The questions organisations should ask when designing their communication strategies are:

  • do we know what we normally/typically/repetitively do when we want to engage people in change?
  • do we take an outcomes based approach to the design of the engagement process such that we always ask “what do we want our people to think, feel, do/behave as a result of this intervention? (versus a message-based approach where we believe that communication is about crafting messages)
  • do we involve the population in the design of the engagement process or is it designed by head office?
  • is our design team ready to do it differently or are they part of the problem?

3 Real engagement is based on self-directed learning’

What does a good engagement experience look like? The engagers eschew the cascade and entertainment model of the internal marketers, which casts staff into the mindset of an audience, and designs a process which implicates individuals in the case for change at their own level and for the organisation as a whole.

A retail bank recently observed that the high-volume sales approach which has kept the retail financial services industry on a growth path in recent years was running out of credibility with the public. The Government is also pressing for change in light of the mis-selling culture which pervades part of the industry. The bank decided it wanted to be one of the institutions which reformed the sales culture in favour of an approach more driven by real customer needs.

First, it had to get its own people to own the realisation that the sales culture may be producing today’s bonuses, but that tomorrow’s will have to be based on real customer needs.

Rather than tell staff what the problem was and then sell them the solution in the time- honoured manner of command and control it designed a process with the help of each significant grade of staff which:

  • gave them the external evidence that the existing volume sales model couldn’t be sustained and through facilitated frameworks let people come to their own conclusion about the changes
  • invited people to game plan what strategic options were open to the bank (which top management also participated in)
  • used selected teams to take these options into recommendations
  • invited those same teams to ‘sell’ the ideas to top management, who then took the best and fashioned it into a new direction, then asked these teams to design a learning experience to engage their colleagues in the new direction.

There is no formula that can be laid out for engagement which takes ‘self-directed’ learning as its basis. But that’s half the point. It needs to be suited to the situation and degree of culture change necessary for each organisation.

The questions designers of the engagement/learning experience need to ask are:

  • have we designed an engagement/learning experience that will deliver the (think, feel, do) outcomes we fantasised about or have we defaulted into repeating tried and tested processes?
  • has the sponsor group been part of the design process or have we allowed it to be delegated to a too cosy group of HR and communication people?


At the end of my journey through 200 entrants for communication strategy I came to the conclusion that most internal communication is trapped in the internal marketing tool box. But there are plenty of signs that organisations are moving towards a different model.

John Smythe is currently serving six months as organisational fellow at Mckinsey and Company, a management consultancy firm advising on strategy and organisation.

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