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The “We Value People” Series Part 3: Communication

We’ve been talking about what it means when an organization says ‘We value our people” (and they almost all say this).  We’ve discussed why it means different things to employers and employees and how to recruit for culture versus just skills.  Another thing I have found in every organization I’ve worked with or in is that they have identified ‘communication’ as an issue.  Because this is so endemic, I thought it useful to unpack this.
When ‘Communication’ is identified as an issue, it is because a pain point is being triggered.  Employers and employees have different pain point around the topic of communication, but the pain points usually center around:

Delivery:  The person communicating is perceived as rude, abrasive or untrustworthy
Frequency: The communication doesn’t happen often enough, so people feel uninformed
Promptness:  It is taking too long to receive a response to your request for communication
Content: There is not clarity about instructions, roles, responsibilities or expectations

Everyone has different thresholds about what is acceptable in terms of delivery, frequency, promptness and content.  If your needs are being met, you think there is good communication.  If your needs are not being met, you will not.  It is not possible to satisfy everyone based on this.  The answer is not simply to push more ‘information’ throughout the company.   So what is the answer?  

Again, it lies in expectations.  Unmet expectations always result in frustration, so it is critical for leadership to develop a communication protocol.  Decide for your organization what your protocol will be for the four factors.  Be realistic but optimistic when developing this.  Hopefully, your goal is to create as pleasant and functional a culture as possible, so you want to make sure you are creating standards that will result in efficiency and positivity.  On the other hand, you also want to be practical and create something that will work based on you as well as the industry you are in.  

Let’s take an example.  You have identified that delivery is an issue.  You are in a fast paced environment where attention to detail is paramount and it has been communicated that employees find some leaders ‘abrasive’.  You do not want rude or abrasive communication from your leaders, but you also know that you are not going to get particularly ‘warm and fuzzy’ on a regular basis.  You can set an expectation that communication will be direct and succinct, and also work with leaders on adding more warmth.   

Go through each factor and develop your communication strategy, then COMMUNICATE IT.  

Your communication strategy needs to be communicated to new and existing employees often.  And it goes without saying that leaders in the organization must model this, adhere to it and live it.  What will happen is that you will define your culture through this process.  This does not mean you will retain every employee.  Those for whom your communication philosophy is unacceptable will not stay.  That’s okay because you will attract people for whom this is the perfect environment and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.

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“We value people” Series: Part I-Overview

One thing I have found to be pretty much constant in every organization I have encountered, whether as an employee, consultant or other is that they all describe their culture as one that values their people.  Every one.  Another thing I have found is that it is relatively uncommon for employees in organizations to say they feel valued.   The disconnect is puzzling.  I have worked with leaders who sincerely want their employees to feel engaged and appreciated and just don’t know why nothing works.   My theory about what causes the disconnect can be summed up in two words: Clarity and Expectations.   Part of this lies in our culture and part of it in simple human nature but I do think that if organizations are clear and intentional about what they can provide employees and what employees can expect in return, then more employees will feel fairly treated and invested in their organizations.

It seems like there always has been tension between employer and employee: 
Our European feudal roots were one of aristocracy and peasants.   If one was not born into the aristocracy, one was likely to live on a farm owned by a rich landlord.  One’s life was spent eking out a living and any excess went to the landlord.   As scientific ‘advances’ were made, it became easier to accumulate excess everywhere.  This allowed for factories, mass production and industrial revolution.  Now, it was possible for an individual to hire many employees and for people to make a living working for someone else.  

Over the last few hundred years we have seen such extremes as owners brutalizing, endangering and even cheating employees and employee groups refusing to work unless owners provided benefits and wages they could not sustain.  Around the middle of the twentieth century a sort of détente was realized.  Organizations acknowledged they could not be successful without the willing participation of employees (aided perhaps by the rise of communism and a genuine fear of what could happen if laborers were pushed too far) and employees began to realize the power they had, as well as the choices that were available.   

In an effort to retain the best of the best, and aided by a booming post war economy, organizations began to offer things like job security, pensions and entitlements.  This seems to have ‘stuck’ in the collective consciousness of our society, despite the facts that the world is very different.  With several economic crashes in the last twenty years and more looming, more people than ever have experienced the dooming sensation of being let go from a job they thought would sustain their family until retirement.  We’ve seen corporations intentionally steal people’s pensions and we’ve seen lives and health endangered to increase bottom lines.  People don’t trust big corporations anymore and we have seen an upsurge in entrepreneurs like never before in response. 

Today, we say we know that job security doesn’t exist and that our employer is not expected to provide for our every need.  But do people really believe it?  What do we really expect from our employers and what does it mean to feel ‘valued’?  We’ve all seen the surveys that support the idea that what workers really want is to be appreciated and empowered and that pay is not really the issues.  We’ve also all been exposed to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and understand that if one is not earning enough to acquire basic food and shelter, that one will not be happy.   

When organizations say they value people, they usually mean that they acknowledge that without people, the basic functions of the organization could not be accomplished and that therefore the organization wants competent people to agree to work there and contribute.  Some company owners generally want people to be happy as well, but if they honestly had to choose between a productive worker and a happy one, they would choose productive.  So they walk a line and try to figure out ways to make workers be productive AND happy.

When employees say they want to be valued, they don’t usually mean they want to come work for an organization and contribute their very best to the bottom line.  They usually mean they want to be liked, appreciated, well compensated, afforded flexibility and essentially treated as friends or family members and not just numbers.  

There is a gigantic potential for unmet expectations here.  There is the unrealistic expectation on the part of the organization that people’s humanity can be ignored, and the unrealistic expectation on the part of the employee that the organization is the one responsible for their emotion and financial wellbeing for life.  An organization that is clear from the outset of what it can and will provide employees by way of emotional support, financial compensation, opportunities for creative and independent thought will go a long way to attract and retain the types of employees whose needs mirror what the organization can offer.  Promising what everyone wants to hear and not delivering is THE biggest contributor to dissatisfaction. 

There are some clearly established milestones in the employee lifecycle:  Recruitment, Onboarding, Employment, Termination and each one is a significant opportunity to ensure the right people are in the right organization and are engaged, effective and ambassadors for the organization.  Companies, either intentionally or unintentionally, invest a great deal of resources in each stage; sometimes more with a bad hiring decision than with a good.  

In the next installment, we’ll review what can be done from a recruiting standpoint to ensure realistic expectations and effective matches.