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Use Internal Communications to Execute a Winning Strategy

Use Internal Communications to Execute a Winning Strategy

by Chris Musser and Gerard Taboada

Story Highlights

  • Many leaders fail at their internal communication efforts
  • Closely examine the "why" behind every message
  • By merging message with mission, leaders can chart a path to improvement

Are your organization's internal communications achieving their intended purpose?

If you are like most leaders, the answer is no. Gallup data show that only 13% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

Many leaders seeking to improve internal communications start by looking at the substance of their messages -- for example, are they clear, consistent and credible?

These are good questions, but they should not be the first questions you ask.

Are you asking the right questions?

The first two questions that leaders should ask of their communications are:

  • What are the primary reasons we communicate? and
  • Are the primary reasons we communicate aligned with the reason we exist and the key strategies that follow?

These are not abstract questions.

They can be answered concretely and at varying levels of depth depending on the time and resources that organizations commit to them (e.g., from gut-based answers to thorough, data-based analyses).

By considering these two questions, leaders can gain insights into the current state of their internal communications and chart a path toward their ideal state -- a state in which communications reinforce and enhance the overall effectiveness of the organization.

Gallup has identified six primary reasons that organizations communicate with their internal stakeholders. Leaders should leverage these Six Reasons to Communicate to answer the two guiding questions above -- and in turn, create strategic alignment across the organization.

Six Reasons to Communicate

  1. To define, inspire and align. Messaging about the purpose, mission, vision and strategies of the organization (e.g., "state of the company" sessions).

  2. To inform. Communications related to the daily maintenance of the organization. Intended to communicate transactional information (e.g., technology updates).

  3. To teach. Messages to improve the knowledge and skills (technical or nontechnical) of the organization's human capital (e.g., online training sessions).

  4. To drive action. Directives intended to request or demand action of one party by another (e.g., assignment given to a subordinate).​

  5. To make decisions. Heavy two-way communication designed to elicit the best decisions in any given situation (e.g., leaders communicating about organizational actions).

  6. To collaborate. Bidirectional communication to jointly execute work responsibilities (e.g., coworkers exchanging project-related ideas).

Evaluate the effectiveness of your communication strategy.

With these six factors in mind, leaders should consider the following three steps:

1. Articulate why your organization exists.

Communications cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Their effectiveness depends on how aligned they are with the overall purpose of the organization and the key strategies that flow from it. Thus, leaders should first define their organization's raison d'être and accompanying strategies given that the optimal mix of communications, discussed in the next step, depends on it.

2. Evaluate how your communication portfolio aligns with your key strategies.

First, approximate the percentage of your organization's communications that fall into each of the six communication categories listed above. Next, ask yourself whether this communication portfolio makes sense in light of your key corporate strategies.

For instance, a global professional services firm Gallup worked with stated that one of its key strategies was to provide expert advice to clients -- yet it delivered instructional communications much less frequently than other types of communications. This signaled a misalignment between key strategies and how they were operationalized through communications, sending mixed messages to employees.

More sophisticated approaches (using tools such as social network analyses) can yield deeper and sometimes unexpected insights. For example, leaders might discover that cross-functional communications only account for a minority of the messages between several key business units -- which would be at odds with their goal of responding faster to market needs and driving innovation.

3. Evaluate the quality of each type of communication.

Objectively assess the quality of the communications in each category, including the substance of communications (what), the frequency of communications (when) and the appropriateness of the communication channel (how).

This last step will equip leaders with insights into specific means by which they can enhance the quality of their communications in each category. In one instance, Gallup discovered that certain leadership messages intended to be inspirational were perceived by employees as being disconnected from reality. This caused messaging in the "inspire" category to backfire. Adjusting the tone and cadence of these messages yielded immediate positive results.

Communications cannot be assessed in a vacuum. Their effectiveness depends on how aligned they are with the overall purpose of the organization and the key strategies that flow from it.

The best leaders frequently audit their internal communications. An organization's communication portfolio should be aligned with its purpose and strategies. It follows that as strategies evolve, so should their internal communications. As leaders periodically reevaluate their communications, they should remember that communications come in many different forms (written, spoken, symbolic, etc.). Additionally, the best leaders know when to use both push (e.g., email) and pull (e.g., intranet site) communications depending on their intent.

An organization's communications and operating model interact with each other in complex ways. Problems in communications are sometimes only manifestations of deeper organizational issues. Other times, organizational problems are created or exacerbated by poor communications. In either case, examining your communications through the lens of the questions proposed in this article will reveal a great deal -- and will put you on the path to answering yes to the question, "Are your organization's internal communications achieving their intended purpose?"

Explore more resources to shape your organization's culture:

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