Why Corporate Communication Frustrates Frontline Employees

Photo by Matthew Brodeur on  Unsplash

Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash

The defining moments of the culture transformation journey are those moments when someone decides to sign up, go beyond compliance, and truly commit to a cause greater than themselves. These moments can come about when someone reads something, hears something, engages in a conversation, or has a certain experience, and suddenly feels a connection to the movement. These defining moments have the possibility of occurring all around us every day, but we can only seize those opportunities by keeping ourselves open to them by keeping ourselves in the right conversations and frame of mind, connecting with the person or groups we are speaking to, and by being on the lookout for reasons to choose to offer up our own genuine commitment to the cause. To convince others to join the cause, they need to know that we are not just interested in going through the motions of implementing programs and checking boxes while skirting the real issues and avoiding the real conversations. Unfortunately, most of these opportunities are squandered while we are too busy talking about them but not really saying and doing anything that makes a real difference. More often than not, it is the corporate leadership that has difficulty conveying and cultivating these defining moments, if for no other reason than the fact that they often take bird’s eye view, while frontline leaders are in the trenches and can quickly tell what works and what doesn’t.

To give you an example of what I mean, I was once involved in the long overdue integration work related to an acquisition that had taken place three years prior. By the time I arrived at the manufacturing plant that was acquired by company A from company B, it was painfully obvious the results and morale were on a downward spiral and everybody was blaming everybody else. Upon further investigation, it became clear that one of the major problems was that there was little to no real communication between the people in the plant and the leadership of the new company. It was also clear that the people who had been there for a long time knew that their old ways of operating weren’t acceptable to the new company but they had no idea what to do to improve the situation.

One of the tough challenges we faced was that even when there was communication between the new company’s leadership and the plant employees, they had trouble understanding one another. I remember literally translating messages—from English to English—between employees of the two companies. The VP of company A would be giving a talk and I could see the puzzled look on people’s face, as if she was speaking a foreign language. Since I understood everything she said because I had worked for company A and had by then picked up company B’s language, I was able to restate what was said in their language! One of the reasons for such a communication gap was that company A’s executives had forgotten how to speak plain English and most of their communication was in the form of “corporatespeak” that only the insiders understood. Acronyms that nobody else had heard about didn’t help either!

Since then, I have seen this same communication issue at several other companies, even when there is no merger or acquisition involved. The problem is that leaders often adopt a way of articulating ideas, verbally or in writing, that doesn’t readily convey what they mean to say, and then they wonder why people don’t get the message or why they are not excited about what was just communicated.

A while ago, I was working with a highly valued client who is doing excellent work to increase employee engagement and as we were reviewing the strategy statements and action plans that they were getting ready to communicate broadly, I spotted a problem that had not jumped out at them up to that point. In this particular case, the strategy had to do with increasing trust within the organization and the action plan stated something like this: “Implement a program to teach leaders to develop an action plan to increase trust that can be put in their development plan!” As soon as I pointed out the issues with this sentence, everybody had an “Aha!” moment and quickly agreed that this was not the best way for us to articulate what we intended to accomplish. Ultimately, we arrived at a statement that said something like, “Have every leader identify 1-2 specific actions they are going to take to actively demonstrate that they are trustworthy!”

Can you see the difference between the two statements? The second statement clearly explains what we expect leaders to do, while the first focuses on implementing programs, training people to develop plans, putting things in people’s development plans, etc. Statements like the first one water down the most important outcomes we are looking for, which is having every person who considers themselves a leader be intentional and declare specific actions they will take to demonstrate their trustworthiness. It gives a 40,000 foot view of what needs to be accomplished, but provides very little practical instruction or stepping stones for getting to those goals. Aside from watering down the original intent in this case, the problem is that while having each leader make a declaration can happen very quickly, developing a program and plans, etc. can take months. This, in turn, can make it seem to those outside the top leadership team, than this is just another empty promise or token initiative that sounds good but never gets real results.

In case you are beginning to doubt whether I understand the enormity of what it takes to implement a program in a large organization of 100k+ employees, let me assure you, I have been involved in many of those and I recognize that there must a be a systemic approach rather than telling people what our intentions are and hoping that it happens. I have seen those programs implemented effectively across multiple regions of the world, and I have also seen them fail miserably when the spirit of the effort got lost in translation as we focused on systematizing the program, oblivious to the fact that doing so negated most of the positive outcomes that the program produced previously. The whole purpose of systematizing is to distribute individual benefits from a program as global benefit for the organization. But, if we are not careful, the goal morphs into expanding and perfecting the system itself for its own sake, regardless of whether the system is doing what it is intended to do. Over time, we lose sight of the fact that, if the system is no longer producing the benefits it was created to produce, it is actually worse than useless; it lulls us into a false sense of “mental attainment,” where we feel that goals have been accomplished in our minds, when little to nothing has been accomplished in reality and we become complacent even as results begin to stagnate or decline.

The point is that while we work on systems and processes to roll out an initiative across an organization, or as we communicate the vision and mission and strategies to the organization, we have to be careful not to lose the spirit of the real message. The best way to do that to communicate clearly, in a language that people actually understand.  

We live in a business world where, when one employee has a performance problem, instead of giving him/her some constructive feedback on the spot, we talk to somebody else about how we need to fix the performance feedback system to deal with low performers! Instead of having a real conversation about what it takes for us to connect and communicate effectively on an individual level, we talk about how the communication process is broken and the systems we need to implement to improve communication, so that we can avoid having to communicate! If you don’t think that’s crazy, I can guarantee that your frontline employees do!

This is why frontline employees and those who are closest to the action are often frustrated with their leaders. They see us hide behind programs and systems and processes, instead of having real conversations about what needs to be done and then either doing it or empowering them to do it. They hear our “corporatespeak” and have no idea what we just said or even if they understand it, and are puzzled as to why we are talking about something that we actively demonstrate we are not willing to get in action on.

If you are on the receiving end of such confusing communication and you are unclear about the real message and practical action steps that need to be taken, don’t wait for your leaders to become perfect communicators. Help them become better communicators! Initiate a conversation. Ask more questions. This will not only help clarify things for you and others, but it will also be a great learning opportunity for your leader as he/she may take away lessons on how to communicate more clearly in the future.

There is no “magic bullet” when it comes to resolving this issue on the leadership side. The only real tangible follow-up step that you can take is to examine your own communication as a leader and seek some feedback as to whether it is landing with others as you intend it to. Ask them open-ended questions to gauge their understanding of the message you have been trying to convey. Abandon “corporatespeak” unless you are completely sure your audience understands what it means. And lastly, just say what you mean and mean what you say.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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