Back to where employee communications began

In my humble opinion, the management of employee communications was faulted from the start. As a spin-off from public relations activities in the 1980’s, it all began when employees became categorized as an ‘audience’.

Knowing what we knew then, seeing employees as an audience was completely logical. At that time, leaders in large organizations had a real issue accessing employees so that they could share crucial information about business vision and strategy. First base was to simply to reach them – and at that point, when social media and ‘listening’ practices weren’t on the radar – the natural assumption was that if you could reach them, you’d get their attention. Second base was about having the message translate into action so that everyone aligns and moves in the right direction. Leaders needed help with both bases because their audiences were getting bigger and more dispersed, so they created the Communications Department.

The role of employee communications today

But knowing what we know now, employees are far from an ‘audience’: a large group of people waiting to be presented to, as if they were all lined up in a theatre. (Outside publics aren’t classic audiences either, but their contract with the organization is different.) Employees arguably ARE the organization, from intent to implementation. Those people, with their capabilities, their thoughts, feelings and ideas can move a company from closure to turnaround; from good to great.

Over the past 10 – 15 years, there has been so much talk about how Internal Communication practitioners need to redefine their role.  Repeated questions come up about how communication professionals can get more power, more influence, more budget; and how this can happen.

Why don’t other people ‘get’ internal communications’?

Why don’t they realise how important the role of the internal communicator is?

How can communication professionals advance?

Clearly something is wrong – or all this energy would have moved the blockers. But the main blocker is so fundamental, it can’t be moved.

Internal communications is a leadership responsibility and it cannot be delegated. The very existence of ‘the Communications Department’ today, with its responsibilities for leading communications, is misleading. It is misleading for leaders who don’t have the time or confidence to manage it themselves. And it is misleading to those who serve in it, who become perpetually frustrated about not being able to advance or be fully effective in their roles.

Because communicators tend to know what they talking about these days, they provide good advice and learning, but the responsibility mix-ups create a vicious circle. And everyone suffers because it doesn’t make for good communications and it is crucial for the success of the whole organization that employees have a clear sense of purpose and direction, trust in those who lead them, and alignment to deliver.

Some support services are needed: planning, creative, copy writing, design, media production, and brand management among others. But at the heart of this is a role issue: but leaders at all levels own the responsibility for employee communications. Perhaps all those excellent communicators should be leaders themselves.

Why employee communications confuses leaders

Leadership involves two distinct communication activities:

  1. Framing – defining the space in which people play – the vision, strategy, and targets
  2. Social Aligning – enabling employees to build a shared current reality about what’s going on and how they can best execute on the strategy, together.

Depending on the context, the outcomes of either activity can influence the other.

Every leader has the responsibility to set the frame and align their team to best deliver within that frame. However this is difficult because the two activities take contradictory approaches:

  • Framing naturally draws on a more informative communication style. This is because a team has less influence over the frame in which they operate.  Informing is associated with a command and control style of leadership.
  • Aligning requires more of a facilitative communication style. This is because people can only align when they understand each other better. Facilitating is more associated with listening and enabling.

For years I thought that the ‘command and control’ leader was out of date, and the ‘listening and enabling’ leader was more effective. But now I see that employees need both – and that’s why it’s so tricky for leaders to deliver.

Adding a communications function into the mix compounds the issue and leaves us with all-too-familiar scenarios such as this. When a key message about framing has been processed through multiple advisors and 26 edits, it comes across as insincere, or worse – meaningless, or even worse – fake.

Where engagement fits in

The way they handle framing or aligning depends on the needs of the team, their context, and the style of the leader.  Being engaging is a style, a choice about HOW to communicate. Engaging communications are more compelling, involving, and participative. ‘Engagement’ is therefore, not another word for communications, but a way of communicating.

The most neglected piece of the puzzle

Alignment is the least recognised, practiced and leveraged communication activity. Traditional definitions of alignment refer to the practice of connecting individual goals with organizational goals, the latest research in social science informs us that alignment is strategic as well as social. The latest view is that if a team has a shared current reality about what they are dealing with and how they can work together to execute, they are more prepared to deliver effectively: they are more aligned. Managing this is getting easier, with processes to facilitate team alignment coming to market.

So to wrap up, in my humble opinion, straightening out these definitions and responsibilities paves the way for better leadership and better internal communications support.