According to a Harvard Business Review study, 95% of employees don’t understand how their day to day activities contribute to the strategy.
Yet, other studies have found that 90% of employees believe that their managers talk about strategy more than enough.
So what’s going on? How can so much communication create so little understanding?
Unfortunately, it’s a common confusion among business leaders that just by supplying people with information, they will know what to do. Unfortunately, the English language is full of lots of generic words that people interpret differently. Often, we believe that just by telling employees that customer service is important we feel that’s enough. Yet, what does great customer service look and feel like? What is it and what is it not?
All you have to do is visit a shop and experience poor customer service. You know that it feels like “apathy” or “unhelpfulness.” The key is explaining what that means, and how to avoid it, to your employees.
Why Do We Over Communicate?
When employees don’t understand information, there is a tendency for management to over communicate the message, believing that will overcome the issue.
While it is true that you do need to repeat your message 6-8 times before people actually take notice of it, it’s not necessarily true that it helps people understand it, if it doesn’t connect the dots in the first place.
It’s like telling your child to “clean their room.” Saying it 100 times won’t work, if you’ve never shown them what that means, how it looks like and what needs to be done and why (“it makes your room feel good).”
There are three reasons for over communication:
- Science says that humans, being social animals, are programmed to use communication as a vital tool to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, we often take that too far and talk too much in the vain hope it will get the other person to like us and think we are smart.
- The speaker themselves hasn’t discovered the emotional reason as to why the message is required. Providing that emotional connection is key to getting people on board with your goal. When people understand it, know what they’ll get out of it, and know that you are as invested in it as they are, only then will they feel accountable for doing their part to make it happen.
- Another issue is that the communicator is providing all of the information and not seeking feedback that the person actually understands it. Communication needs to be two way. It’s important to always check in with the listener not only to check they understand it, but to find out what they think about it. This is crucial to getting their buy-in.
Three Steps to Alignment
To improve strategy or vision understanding, it’s important for every manager to communicate the strategy in a way that helps people understand it, but also feel responsible for it.
The next time you need to communicate a new strategy or vision, try this three step process:
1. Share the why – help people understand reality and why the strategy is required. Define reality (including when things are bad) and show people where you are going to take them. Avoid telling people what to do. By starting with the why, it disarms people, so they can understand why the new process, strategy or goal is required. This makes them more open to the how and what. Ensure you align the message with your company purpose and values.
2. Use image-based words – avoid using ideological or generic words that are hard to understand such as “success,” “shareholder value” or “sustainability.” Unfortunately, it tends to tune people out. Instead, use language to help employees clearly envision the future. The best method is to use sensory information or image-based information, so people can literally see the vision. Celebrated business leaders speak about the future vision that helped others see what they meant. For example, “a computer on every desk in every home” which Bill Gates used very successfully with Microsoft.
3. Ask for feedback – people want to feel listened to and feel that what they say matters. Ask direct questions about the vision or challenges around the strategy and enable people to offer their viewpoint. Then, let them know you understood them (by paraphrasing or asking further questions) and thank them for their contribution. This will work towards getting their commitment. Remember, no involvement means no commitment.
Painting the Future Vision
Painting the vision of the future and reasons why is an art. It requires leadership and conviction involving the ability to clearly articulate a final outcome. It also has to be an inspiring goal – a vision that aims big and isn’t limiting. At the same time, it has to be linked to your organisational purpose and values (core ideology), the heart and soul of your company, otherwise it becomes meaningless.