The Unintended Word

By Eric Krell Aug 1, 2006

HR Magazine, August 2006Communications from management often carry unintended messages that alienate, discourage or anger employees. Here's how to make sure your messages don't produce unexpected results.

Sensitive announcements to employees are intended to deliver specific messages—but too often, those messages convey meanings the sender never intended.

Consider, for example, a typical corporate outsourcing announcement: The message reports the business rationale for hundreds of jobs being shipped out to a service provider, enumerates the changes in head count, presents the dates on which the changes will take place—and says little else.

In this situation, the fact that there is no acknowledgment of the emotional effect the move will have on employees speaks volumes.

“We’re talking about human lives, yet we tend to communicate in numbers and dates,” says Joseph Grenny, president of Vital Smarts, an HR consulting company in Provo, Utah, and co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (McGraw-Hill, 2002). “I don’t think that the leaders are insensitive to the pain that they are causing, but when they don’t deal with that, the unintended message is: ‘We don’t give a darn.’ ”

Even subtle behavior and commonplace decisions can send unexpectedly harsh messages. A CEO who checks her BlackBerry during a meeting can give the impression that the session is unimportant. Special health benefits and parking spots reserved for management-level employees can convey to lower-level workers that they are second-class citizens.

Even rewards can backfire: Kathryn Yates, Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s global communication practice director, encountered a situation early in her career in which she promoted a direct report—a move that should have shown the employee she was valued and respected. Yet the worker responded angrily because her promotion did not include an “upgrade” from a brown metal desk to a black metal desk, which supposedly conferred a higher status.

When unintended messages deal with strategic shifts, financial performance, policy changes, reorganizations and other crucial changes, their effects can be particularly dramatic: They can undermine morale, reduce productivity, weaken financial performance and increase turnover rates.

In fact, employee communications in general are correlated with financial performance: A recent Watson Wyatt study found that companies with highly effective internal communication capabilities posted shareholder returns over a five-year period that were 57 percent higher than those of companies that communicate less effectively to their employees.

“If you communicate what you intended to communicate, you earn access to the discretionary energy of employees,” says Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in management, communications and the behavioral sciences. Discretionary effort, Dalton explains, includes “what they don’t have to give you but could: initiative, working late, covering your backside, creativity and more.”

To earn access to employees’ discretionary energy, companies need to spot—and squelch—the harmful unintended communications that their messages and messengers deliver.

The frequency of such messages can be reduced, according to Yates and other communication experts, through training, empathy, formal planning, vetting, and other approaches and qualities that reside in the human resource function.

“Either by default or intention, HR tends to find itself at the center of communications,” says Margie Talarowski, SPHR, vice president of human resources for Caliper, an HR consulting firm in Princeton, N.J. “You can’t always know how every single person is going to interpret the written or spoken word. However, if you do know your organization well and have a sense of its culture, you can be better poised to ensure that key messages are received the way you intended.”

The Value of Saying What You Mean

Clearer communications lead to greater employee engagement and commitment, higher retention and productivity, and—ultimately—better financial performance, according to a 2005/2006 Communications ROI Study by Watson Wyatt.

The research included 335 U.S. and Canadian companies that had median annual revenues of $1.8 billion and, on average, 13,000 employees. “Effective communication” was defined by eight characteristics, including “helping employees understand the business,” “exhibiting strong leadership by management during organizational change,” and “explaining and promoting new programs and policies.”

The participating organizations that placed in the top third of the effectiveness scoring significantly outperformed companies with less-effective communication practices in the following ways:

  • They boasted a 19.4 percent higher market premium (the degree to which the company’s market value exceeds the cost of its assets).
  • They were 4.5 times more likely to report high levels of employee engagement.
  • They were 20 percent more likely to report lower turnover rates.

The study also identified common practices among companies that communicate in a highly effective manner. The practices include “openly communicating with employees about matters that affect them and the reasons behind major decisions,” providing communication training, linking compensation and benefits to business strategy, and counseling executives on internal communication strategies.

Many of those approaches represent core HR competencies. But many companies whose communications are hampered by unintended messages do not involve human resources in the crafting and delivering of those announcements, many experts say.

“Management is often so removed from employees that they don’t have a sense for how something will be perceived, misunderstood or not understood,” says Robin Cohn, author of The PR Crisis Bible (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), who consults with companies on how to communicate during product boycotts, bankruptcies, lawsuits and other crises. “Quite frankly, HR is not utilized enough. This is a department that has a feel for the whole company and knows what’s going on. Top management really has to learn to include human resources in the message process.”

Proactive Detection and Avoidance

When tackling unintended messages, it pays to take a proactive approach. Responding to unintended messages reactively often requires a greater communication effort than the one that sparked the negative reaction.

So, in short, it is better to get the message right the first time than to go back and try to fix it later.

To that end, consider the following proactive steps to identifying the potential for unintentional communications and then using that awareness to reduce its likelihood of transmission:

  • Develop a communicative culture. In her previous position as a divisional HR executive with a large telecommunications company, Talarowski’s unit consistently received the highest communication marks in the annual employee survey. It was an honor earned through a number of efforts.

    For starters, the division’s president authored a monthly e-mail update, which detailed new customer accounts, progress on product development, hiring trends and individual accomplishments. The division also held a weekly senior management meeting, monthly meetings for all line managers and quarterly town hall meetings for all employees. The president also hosted several smaller breakfast and lunch sessions with about 10 employees each month.

    As a result of these communication efforts, “when an e-mail with an important message went out, it was essentially follow-up,” says Talarowski. “Most of the employees had already received most of the information in the announcement.”

  • Strengthen your messengers’ communication skills. The Watson Wyatt study found that many companies are giving managers a greater share of communication responsibility, but few provide tools and training to help them communicate more effectively.

    Such training and tools need not be time-consuming or expensive. In fact, a little communication training goes a long way. “It doesn’t require sending everybody to a classroom training session,” says Yates, referring to the emergence of effective and engaging online communication training tools. Simple lists of communication do’s and don’ts can help managers spot subtle body language, facial expressions and intonations that may be sending the wrong message.

  • Use focus groups. HR and communication consultants universally praise the benefit of using employee focus groups to vet and then massage messages before the entire workforce receives them.

Bob Kustka, president of HR consultancy CHR Partners in Norwell, Mass., and a former HR executive with Gillette, recalls a manufacturing client that used focus groups to prepare for an announcement that its factory was shifting to around-the-clock operation. Before making the announcement, the company conducted a year-long planning process in which communication considerations figured prominently. Kustka worked with a focus group of factory workers to understand how the new schedule would affect their spouses, children and—in some instances—the employees’ night-school schedules.

“Yes, you run some risks” when conducting focus groups, Kustka says. “But is it better to run the risk of people starting to discuss the situation rather than going in blindly and doing it badly?”

In this case, the focus groups worked well: Kustka says the rollout of the new schedule was seamless.

At Caliper, Talarowski uses focus groups that include workers representing different hierarchical and functional perspectives. She e-mails a draft of a corporate announcement to her trusted, hand-picked network, blind-copying them so they do not learn of other members’ identities (and, therefore, are more likely to maintain the confidentiality she requires). Having this network is so important to Talarowski that when she joins a new organization as a senior HR manager, one of her top priorities is to find individuals who can serve on such a group.

It’s important to ensure that focus group members represent various segments of the organization’s workforce. Dalton points out that different audiences within an organization frequently interpret the same message differently. For that reason, she developed an “impact grid” to help clients reduce unintended messages. The basic chart contains boxes for the decision and then its potential impacts on different departments within the organization.

While focus groups should be diverse, Cohn says, they should not be so large that they provide too much input and confuse rather than sharpen the message. Cohn also suggests that an administrative assistant be included on any review panel. “They know what the mood is throughout the entire company and how people are going to react,” she says.

Even small focus groups can provide insight. At the very least, a focus group of one can help detect problems with wording and meaning.

  • Choose your channels wisely. E-mail may be the first thing many managers think of using to communicate with employees, but it may not be the best channel. Many employees absorb information more effectively via telephone and personal interaction. Gail Gooden, a management psychologist in the Chicago office of consulting firm RHR International, says that e-mail communications pose the greatest risk of unintended interpretation—followed by telephone and face-to-face exchanges, respectively. (For more views on the place of e-mail in management communications, see “Do Not Hit Send,” at right.)

    “We receive more data, have the opportunity for immediate interaction and tend to behave better when we are face to face,” Gooden says. E-mail may be far more practical from the sender’s perspective, but it is less comforting from the receiver’s point of view.

  • Demonstrate empathy. Frame communications in an empathetic context—what Grenny describes as an “environment of safety” in which the audience understands that the decision-makers “care more about them and their best interests and goals” than the issue at hand. Once that tone is established, Grenny says, communicators should enhance the intended message with a “don’t/do statement” that addresses misunderstandings.

    For example, when a company wants to communicate that it is changing its health plan—but is not doing so in response to declining revenues—Kustka says, it should detail the reasons that the change is being made. These might include the rising cost of health benefits, prudent options to consider (passing on costs to customers, raising employee premiums or some combination of the two) and why the decision makes the most sense.

  • Prepare your managers. Once an announcement has been finalized, but before it is sent to employees, Bernadette Kenny, senior vice president of human resources with staffing company Adecco Group North America, sends it to managers with a list of related questions and answers to help them in addressing follow-up questions.

Final Touches

The final step is measuring the degree to which important communications hit their mark. That can be accomplished through employee survey questions that gauge understanding of certain key issues, and that level of understanding can then be broken down by division, department and specific managers.

Yates also suggests that companies consider assessing managers’ communication skills.

All of these steps are designed to formalize communication practices. That discipline can help reduce the frequency of misinterpretation.

“There’s a four-letter word that’s needed here,” Kustka adds. “It’s called ‘plan.’ The central question the plan seeks to answer is, ‘If we do this, what are the potential impacts?’ No one intentionally says, ‘let’s send a bad message to our employees.’ ”

Eric Krell is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers HR and finance issues.


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