Recently, when I was talking with Michael Piperno of the Leadership Communication podcast, he asked me a question that I hear often in many different forms: How do you create appropriately cascading communications where there is currently a lack of good communication? Senior leaders frequently have difficulty conveying their meaning clearly to all corners of the organization.
The major pitfall for most organizational communications is that they’re too broad-brush and insufficiently tailored to the individual. The idea of getting everyone on the same page is not enough. To ensure that everyone understands the goals, expectations, or situation, it’s crucial to invest more time and energy than most people assume. It’s important that every employee understands the big picture—it’s great when a new initiative is announced at a town hall, for example—but if you want to see action, it’s just as important that team members understand their specific parts in the larger context.
Know Your People and What They Know
Think about these aspects of your employees’ work: How will their day-to-day worklife change? What will make them successful? What will they need to do to ensure that their boss is satisfied? Effectiveness depends on each manager understanding their own place in the big picture and being comfortable with the shifts they themselves need to make as well as the new expectations for their team members.
Getting everybody aligned for a change initiative takes much more time than most people realize or are willing to commit. Putting the big message across requires having full awareness of how this change will affect each person, knowing in detail what their jobs are, how they feel about them, as well as what skills they already have to meet the new challenge. It also means understanding the people involved so well that you know which ones will be excited, which ones will need persuasion, and who is likely to resist the changes until the end—as well as what support or new skills they all may need to implement their individual portions of the change.
There’s a big difference between being able to repeat the original message and being able to explain it in a meaningful way so that individuals know what actions to take: what to keep doing and what—and when—to shift their behavior. It also means demonstrating one’s own commitment to the new vision, path, or adjustment. You want your team members to see that this message is not just a vague declaration from a distant power but is coming from you, the leader who works with them every day. You want them to perceive you as the leader who not only knows whether they’ll need new training or skills but will also see that they get it. Otherwise, there is little chance that team members will have a good reason to participate in the desired change, and the cascade of information across the organization will most likely fail.
Say It Again—and Again
But this kind of communication is never a one-and-done. People need to hear the same basic messaging multiple times to really take it in and, depending on how they’re thinking about their jobs and your communication, they may also need to hear about it in different channels. In addition to the company-wide town hall and your own team meetings, you might need a series of email reminders, notes on Slack, and perhaps a series of small group meetings or daily stand-ups. This layered approach to messaging is particularly important in remote and hybrid environments.
Confirm that everyone knows what their piece of the action is, whether it happens now or in six months. And you’ll need to continue the messaging for the entire six months because it’s your responsibility to make sure that everyone does their part at the correct time.
Build Out Your Information Delivery
It’s only when leaders and managers recognize both the importance of the accurate and consistent flow of information throughout the organization and of the need to break the big message down into its desk-level components and convey those consistently to their team members that everyone in the organization is likely to do their part. Otherwise, the apparent lack of commitment and participation can take the leader by surprise and cause them to overreact out of concern that people aren’t complying. Leaders who overreact are likely to micromanage and overcontrol—creating a bad cycle of small, sharp directives but never enough context or flexibility for people to do their best.
As a result, managers often start operating on a need-to-know basis, doling out bits of information that they want team members to focus on now, but without ever galvanizing the team into a sense of belonging and agency where everyone seeks to contribute the most possible. Instead, team members wait to be told what to do, and their ability to be creative and to feel satisfied diminishes. The cascade of leadership directives comes to an end, and the closer to the top of the hierarchy this break occurs, the less the new message will penetrate the organization.
When a breakdown happens, sometimes the people at the top never figure out how or why it occurred. If you’re committed to progress give yourself the best chance of penetrating deeply into the organization: learn what team members need to understand so that they can take action, and convey that information frequently, clearly, and consistently.