The most critical question a leader or organizational communicator can ask is, "How smart do I want my employees to be?"

Answer this and both your management model and communications approach is solved.  But at a time when organizations need their workforce to master change, foster innovation, navigate risk, and move quickly amid competing forces, the predominant method employed in "communicating" is actually having the opposite effect.

Further, organizational clarity continues to be a dominant operational and cultural challenge facing CEOs today as employees struggle to draw a line of sight from their job to the marketplace.

Dialogue Avoidance

Even with the increasing influence of social media, many companies are still practicing what we call "dialogue avoidance" communications techniques internally.  This approach is marked predominately by overuse of PowerPoint, choreographed Town Hall meetings led by leaders, orchestrated management briefings and talking-point dominated presentations.

The results? 

Same old, same old. Leaders are left with a false sense of accomplishment as they react to the proverbial head nods of their employees seeming to indicate  they have communicated effectively, and people "got it."  They didn't.

Sitting through scripted, mind numbing slide presentations has wasted valuable time and energy – something no company can spare given today's competitive realities.

The real tragedy though is missing the exchange of knowledge, experience, insight, context, and personality, which truly allows any organization or institution to grow, learn, and differentiate itself.

It’s all about Dialogue, Discussion, Debate

The dirty little secret is that your workforce is ready for and expecting dialogue-based communications to infuse the management model and enhance company culture. With information being abundantly available and easily accessible outside the company, the last thing employees need is more. True value of sharing information internally is the context that can be provided and the opportunity to engage in  real time discussion to learn and hear from employees. .  

Opening Minds, Hearing New Voices

So, what can be done?

It’s actually quite simple.   The most difficult part is recalibrating leadership's mindset to employ a dialogue-based communications model and training/supporting communicators to execute against this approach.  Recognize that the fear with such a move lies in the fact that things are no longer controlled.  This lack of control can unnerve executives used to dictating strategy and dominating discussion.

Similarly it can disrupt communicators who employ a "check the box" approach to internal communications believing that every message, event, or interaction is actually communicating in an effective manner.  As such, we offer the following “tested” construct to implement a Dialogue-Based Communications Model internally:

? Discover vs. Sell:  We live in a discover culture.  That is, people can’t be sold things anymore including ideas, strategies, programs or initiatives. Knowing this reality, all internal communications actions must be premised on a discover vs. sell approach.  Time and effort must be devoted to education, dialogue, debate and engagement.  This philosophy should dictate everything concerning internal communications.

? Develop a Narrative: To become a Dialogue-Based Communications Culture there needs to be a narrative that is built off the business strategy.  Not a message plan or talking points but a real narrative that translates the business’ purpose and mission and articulates its opportunities and risks. A narrative is critical to having people talk about the business in a natural, easy manner accelerating learning and building trust.

? Context Rules:  In a Dialogue-Based Communications model, context must trump content.  That is, people are looking for the “why” not just the “what.”  This means communicators must be in the loop on key decisions and comprehend the essence of the thinking behind them.

? Provocative Commentary: Dialogue-based communications is real just authentic communications.  Leadership commentary and messaging must reflect this by provoking more than cheerleading.  

? Reduce the use and size of PowerPoint presentations to leave more time for discussion, dialogue and debate:  Institute a policy that better balances static communications with dynamic communications.  Remember the goal is organizational learning and individual confidence.

? Balance formal presentations at events such as Management Mtgs, Town Halls, Briefings, and Quarterly Updates with open discussion, idea/suggestion solicitation: Key is to reduce the number of attendees at these events to create a more intimate setting.  Use the event to provide a forum for employee voices, perspectives.  The goal is to provide leaders with a better sense of their workforce and what is resonating and working.  It’s important to note that if you conduct Town Halls, etc., as employee events and not leadership opportunities you are missing the point. 

? Add a "comment" feature to all internal leadership messaging, blogs, forums:  Easy to do and signals to the workforce that the company is interested in their opinions. Of course, having employees comment and then doing nothing with it is worse.  The point to opening up comment internally is two-fold:  to provide opportunities for people to voice their opinion; to enhance the entire organization’s understanding of how it thins, acts, doe, collectively.

? Build peer-to-peer connectivity features to the portal to increase dialogue among people through the enterprise: Many internal communications functions continued to be stifled by inadequate IT systems or architectures limiting the company’s ability to connect its workforce.  But dialogue happens in many different ways and with different platforms and having people be able to easily and quickly reach out to colleagues throughout the enterprise is a basic expectation.

? Regular Pulse Checks: Quick and easy sense checks on workforce comprehension, satisfaction, etc., should be adopted as part of this movement to dialogue-based communications.

Mining the new Data Trove

The Reality Check

Once you've begun it is essential to institute at least one new operating mechanism to aggregate feedback, distill insights, inform decision- making, and refresh your narrative and communications system.   A once-a-month “Content Workshop” among communications staff to review the conversations, feedback, critiques, and inputs being received through multiple platforms ensures that communications is being used to get smarter about the business rather than just smarter about communications.  This insight can then inform management decision-making and programming.  

Keeping the Business Real: The Employee Worldview

Moving to a Dialogue-Based communications model begins with gaining a much deeper comprehension of your workforce.  Unlike traditional employee research focusing on satisfaction and engagement, the Employee Worldview looks to uncover people’s information habits.  How they seek, assimilate, share, engage, populate, and utilize information. 

Armed with this insight, leaders and communicators can make better decisions on content, context, cadence, frequency, and purpose of information as it relates to the business.     

Seeing the Light: Guidelines for a Dialogue-Based Communications Model

Coming out of the dark (Translation: mitigating PowerPoint and indirect techniques as the primary communications approaches) can be an invigorating experience for all employees and a real opportunity for leaders to power their organizations.

The resulting benefits including confidence, better judgment, trust, clarity, and involvement can positively impact even the most competitively challenged businesses.  

Doing so takes courage, creativity and discipline.  Are leaders and communicators ready to step up the challenge?

“If the structure does not permit dialogue, then the structure must be changed.” – Paulo Friere, Noted Brazilian Educator

Gary F. Grates is a Principal at W20 Group, the parent company of WCG and Twist and an expert in organizational change, corporate strategy and employee engagement working with the world’s leading companies and brands.