• David Chou

Is your message getting stuck in your organization?


If you are a board member or C-Suite executive, you may be asking, “How do I keep communications intended for front-line employees from getting stuck in upper management?”. This question assumes that your communications do not actually make it to front-line employees. The topic of executive communications becoming clogged at the managerial level is merely a subset of the broader concern of why employees aren’t responding or reacting to executive communications. If your messages are indeed becoming “stuck” at certain levels though, the following points will help you to determine why this may be happening as well as offer you suggestions on how to fix it.

1. Eliminate the Need for Employee Sabotage

VPs, directors, and managers all generally care just as much about job security and upward career mobility as the average employee, and they are often just as much, if not more, competitive. Employee sabotage may be extreme terminology to reference ultra-competitive behavior, but this is a fine line that only you can evaluate as a top-level executive in your organization.

2. Respect Your Management’s Authority

If a manager or director has been telling their subordinates to do A. B, and C, and you present a communication intended for employees telling them to do D, E, and F instead, you may be unknowingly undermining that manager’s authority over their team. Employees may lose respect for a manager who appears to not be in alignment with top brass in some way. Managers may receive your message and then either slowly implement your wishes without communicating your message directly, or they may just shelve your communication altogether to save face before their teams. Ensure that you and your management team are aligned in every way possible in accomplishing your goals for the organization. Even the President is capable of stepping on toes within his own company.

3. Use Commonly Understood Words and Concepts

Eliminate the need for others to interpret and translate your message. Consider that many directors, managers, and employees are scientists, engineers, artists, programmers, secretaries, and laborers. Managers may not have the time (or inclination) to interpret your executive lingo. Human beings tend to not fully absorb what comes after a word or concept they don’t understand, even if the rest of the message is completely understandable. The brain subconsciously gets “stuck” where it had trouble, and the rest of the message can easily be lost. Your management team may be more willing and able to pass along your important messages to employees if they don’t have to re-engineer your message for themselves or their teams.

4. Keep it Brief

As the head of a company, your time is valuable. You want to know the bottom line, and you expect communications with you to be as brief as possible and to the point. Most executives probably wouldn’t give full attention to a 1,000-word email from a manager or staff member. Likewise, your staff doesn’t want to get a 1,000-word email from you, either. If your management team needs to excessively prune your message, whether it’s written, verbal, or video, so that their team members will read and absorb it, the message may not be passed along in its entirety or at all. Respect your staff’s time as much as you respect your own, no matter how many hours you see wasted at the water cooler.

5. Change it Up

It’s just as important for you to figure out your subordinates’ preferred means of communicating as it is for them to figure out yours. Swap emails to management with videos posted directly to the company intranet. Employees today, especially millennials, have grown accustomed to video communication, and studies show that complex or distressing messages are better communicated this way.

If video isn’t an option, email all employees the same message directly, bearing in mind numbers 3 and 4, above. Some managers (and their team members) may prefer information presented in the body of an email rather than in an attachment, or maybe they don’t like/aren’t proficient enough in Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, or some other tool you’ve used to create the attachment.

In lieu of emails, have your message posted on the start page or computer screen to be seen as soon as employees log into their computers. Instead of holding meetings, create a monthly newsletter with a column specific to each topic you might have covered in a meeting, such as new product release dates or employee concerns. Eliminate Mondays and Fridays as days when any type of important message is sent or posted. Tack short, important messages to employee pay stubs or other paperwork that is regularly distributed. Try different ways of communicating that work best for your employees, rather than just ways that work best for you.

6. Increase Your Awareness of Upward Perception

Studies have shown that your staff knows you better than you think they do. Your managers may primarily focus their efforts on certain things they deem most important to you or on things to which you are least averse, no matter what you say or write. Important points that you wish to get across to front-line employees may be put on the back burner or eliminated altogether by managers and directors who know your sweet spots.

In short, managers will direct their employees more to things they know you like, pay attention to, and reward, and they will have their employees focus less on subject areas you dislike or for which the reward is a sigh or multiple glances at your watch. If you want your everyday employee to receive your message, ensure the ones filtering the message, your managers, perceive and know that this is something that is truly important to you and in which you are sincerely interested.

7. Explain the Relevance

Managers and directors may not understand how employee response to the message relates to overall corporate goals. Sometimes, explaining why everyone in the company needs to be on board in certain areas may be all it takes to ensure your message makes it to the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. If executives deem the communication vital to reception and/or action taken by front-line employees, briefly and simply explaining why and how it’s important that employees receive the message will often ensure your message is passed along.

8. Improve Upward, Horizontal, and Informal Communication

Evaluate the opportunities you give your staff, their employees, and your peers to communicate with you and other management, as well as the attention and response you give to their communications. Consider creating a team or assigning an ombudsman to handle anonymous employee concerns. Foster positive informal communication through company gatherings or by taking employees out to lunch. Regularly invite peers to socialize with you outside of working hours, even if they represent competitors. If you are receptive and responsive to upward, horizontal, and informal communication, you can improve your own job performance, including your sensitivity to the wants and needs of people in your company and how to best communicate with them.

9. Show Them Why They Should Care

According to a recent 2017 CareerBuilder survey, 78% of Americans employed full-time live paycheck to paycheck, including a significant number who make over $100,000 per year. Recognize that these include your vice presidents, area directors, middle management and project managers, as well as front-line employees. Furthermore, most employees report “lack of appreciation” as their number one reason for leaving a company (after an average tenure of 4.5 years), even though employee tenure has been on an upward trend for at least the past 25 years.

Given these statistics, it’s likely that most of your employees care much less about your company than you assume, and most of them probably feel underappreciated. They may be receiving c-level communications, but they just don’t care enough to read, watch, listen to, or in some way respond to or pass along all of them with any consistency or effectiveness. Entire lecture series have been written on why downward communication may be ineffective, but addressing employee ambivalence is perhaps one of the simpler solutions.

10. Reduce the Noise

Over-sending and oversharing will reduce the impact of your most important messages. If you frequently send email where a phone call would do, or frequently send lengthy verbal vomit to your team, your important points may be drowned out in all the noise. Be selective in the number of communications you send out and in what you include in each message.

Conclusion

If you’ve read this article, you no doubt realize that your message getting through to front-line employees via your management staff is just as much your responsibility as it is your managers’. Seek to know yourself and your staff even better, invest in courses on effective public speaking for staff meetings, respect your audience’s time, and ensure you are open and responsive to communications as well. Sometimes, with downward internal communications, what works best for your staff is what works best for you, especially if your message is critical to the success of a company where you are at the helm.


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ABOUT David Chou

David Chou serves as the SVP/CIO for a public academic health system.  Chou has held executive roles with the Cleveland Clinic, Children's Mercy Hospital, University Of Mississippi Medical Center, AHMC Healthcare, and Prime Healthcare.  

David is a dynamic keynote speaker and industry commentator working with clients to transform their business models using technology. He has spoken around the world at healthcare tech-related conference including keynotes for leading industry events and intimate executive settings. Chou is also one of the most mentioned CIOs in the media and well quoted in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Modern Healthcare, HIMSS Media, ZDNet, CIO.com, Huffington Post, and Becker's Healthcare.  David is an active member of both ACHE and HIMSS while serving on the board for CHIME. 

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