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Five Things Research Tells Us About Communications

Cees B.M. van Riel

Frank Ovaitt 28 Nov 2011

“Corporate messaging matters little in a time of unbridled skepticism.” “Perception always trumps the identity you seek to project.” “Cascading information through line managers remains the most successful path to informed and engaged employees.”

All of these views are widely held by corporate communicators – and often misguided, according to a career’s-worth of research by Prof. dr. Cees B.M. van Riel. Professor of corporate communication at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), and vice chairman and co-founder of Reputation Institute, van Riel has received the 2011 Pathfinder Award, the highest academic honor bestowed by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR).

Speaking to the IPR Board of Trustees in November, van Riel’s presentation on “The Alignment Factor: Academic Foundations & Practical Applications” offered insights based on his pioneering work in corporate reputation and strategic alignment. Here are five highlights of that presentation.

Employee alignment with corporate strategy evokes success for the enterprise. That’s not just happy talk among corporate communications practitioners. Van Riel cites a Corporate Executive Council study documenting that a 10 percent improvement in alignment on defined measures produces a six percent improvement in employee effort – and a two percent improvement in overall corporate performance. Obviously, if employees need to know and understand strategy to implement it in their daily work, managers need to answer the “what’s in it for me” question. Strategy must be presented in the context of why and how it’s good for the employee. But even that is not as straightforward as it may sound.

Satisfaction with corporate messaging may have more impact than information about the employee’s own role. In fact, both are vital when it comes to creating alignment with strategy. The communications climate drives motivation through openness, allowing employees to participate in decisions that affect them, and confirming that managers take employees seriously. Surely that speaks to the role of the line manager in communicating key information about the strategy. Yet van Riel talks about the “cascading trap,” when there is too much reliance on information being passed down level by level. Line managers often appear to be a bottleneck in informing and motivating employees. Higher level managers need to participate in telling the strategic story through channels that the professor describes as “unavoidable exposure” to the employee body. A well-considered program to communicate strategy must include many facets.

Getting support from the equivocal majority of employees does not happen easily and takes a long time. While a substantial group of employees may support the strategy at an attitudinal level, only a small group – van Riel suggests 10 percent – fully understand it. Perhaps twice that number, or 20 percent, have a negative view and may never support the strategy. That leaves 70 percent in the middle as the primary target for corporate strategy communications. Van Riel’s 2009 article in the Journal of Management Studies identifies the principle drivers for employee alignment as informing (sufficient and consistent information with line management support), motivating (what’s in it for them, acknowledgement of employee contributions), and capability development (training and empowerment to implement the strategy). Furthermore, says the professor, understanding the strategy, attitudes toward it and actual implementation can and should be tracked.

Perceived identity and projected identity can be two different things – and perception is reality, right? Maybe not, says van Riel. Research that he published with co-authors in 2006 and 2010 (with another installment coming in 2012) shows that both have an impact on identification. Furthermore, when the organization faces a threat, projected identity has more impact on identification than does perceived identity. In other words, the professor declares, “corporate messaging matters a lot.”

When employees don’t feel they can speak up, there are serious negative consequences for strategic alignment. Self-preservation – and even barriers raised by supervisors – can stop employees from naming the elephant in the room. Stimulating the employee voice “is essential regarding topics that will impact the performance of the organization,” says van Riel. In fact, repeated research by a variety of authors correlates an open climate with improved performance. “Shoot-to-kill” sessions with top management – where employees are encouraged to take their best shot with their most difficult questions – are cited as one approach that helps end corporate silence.

Frank Ovaitt is president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. Prof. dr. van Riel’s presentation is available on the Institute for Public Relations website.
 

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