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Are you sending the right signals? It pays to be aware of the direct and indirect messages you send to employees. If you're careful, you can help them see what better communication can bring to your organization.

In his classic text Administrative Behavior (1976), Nobel laureate Herbert Simon described communication as the most ignored component of the administrative process. Ask any communication professional today, and you'll likely find that he or she agrees. It is simply assumed, for example, that employees can communicate well enough to perform their jobs. An organization's structure presumably has established a social architecture among employees that promotes the sharing of information necessary to achieve the firm's goals. Consequently, day-to-day concern for communication recedes into the office woodwork--until there is a breakdown. When this happens, new technologies, training and workplace restructuring are introduced to deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, many of these interventions do not produce their anticipated impact. Even companies that have the most technologically up-to-date communications systems experience serious problems. Why? Because employees see few signs that management truly values effective interpersonal communication, and communicating effectively appears to be a thankless undertaking. What's missing is a culture within the organization that signals the importance of developing and rewarding good communicators.

A culture of communication

An organization's culture is revealed in the assumptions that members share about what is important, such as teamwork, the bottom line, or the quality of service or products. These shared expectations often are derived from the company's founders and top management, whose actions typify the behaviors the organization values.

A communication culture emerges when employees identify and adopt acceptable communication behaviors. Wittingly or unwittingly, managers send signals about what is appropriate conduct, and employees pick up on these cues. Being conscious of their own actions is crucial for managers seeking to build better communication. For example, Aad Jacobs, the retired chairman of ING Groep NV, depended on straightforward, open and truthful information from associates at lower levels of the company. In the book Global Literacies, Jacobs revealed that by modeling authentic communication himself, he cultivated unfiltered upward communication among those who reported to him. Similarly, New York Times writer Clyde Farnsworth described Malcolm Baldrige, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, as able to improve the memo-writing style of agency employees by challenging them to follow his example of writing lean sentences and using active verbs and no unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.

The missing link

Although a strong communication culture may emerge from witnessing the behaviors of top management, research shows that offering rewards and incentives that acknowledge effective communication helps to strengthen and sustain that culture. Yet this rarely happens.

For example, Frederic Jablin's article "Superior-Subordinate Communication: The State of the Art," in Psychological Bulletin (1979), revealed that supervisors who devote themselves to sharing job- and non-job-related information with their subordinates seldom receive tangible recognition for their openness from their own managers. The absence of payback for their openness contrasts starkly with the investment of time and energy that is required to establish and maintain a climate that encourages open communication. Further, Rudi Klauss and Bernard M. Bass, in their book Interpersonal Communication in Organizations (1982), found that being a good listener is largely irrelevant when rewarding job performance. Like creating and maintaining openness, active listening requires a substantial investment of time and energy by employees who are unlikely to earn much organizational recognition.

My own research has documented failures to reward effective communicators, as well. In one firm, for example, performance appraisals classified managers either as role models or as less effective but nonetheless competent managers; appraisers prepared short narratives that provided information about the specific activities that justified the classification. Whereas content analysis of these narratives revealed that those classified as role models successfully initiated, implemented and completed tasks, the most distinguishing characteristic of the "less effective" managers was good communication skills that is, they were described as "good listeners" and as individuals who "shared information." In discussions, the appraisers confirmed that the comments about communication skills apparently were a means to compliment employees whose job performance was not otherwise noteworthy.

In another organization, the importance of being an effective communicator was examined by assessing the influence of communication skills on the overall performance evaluation. Eleven employee behaviors, including quality of work, time management, problem solving and communication, were rated, and a 12th item rated the employee's overall job performance. The logic of the investigation was this: The stronger the relationship between the ratings of a particular behavior and the rating of overall performance, the greater the role played by that behavior in determining the manager's overall evaluation. Of the 11 management behaviors, communication had the weakest relationship to the evaluation of overall performance.

These results are consistent with other research suggesting that process-related issues (like communication) typically are elbowed out of the performance limelight by greater organizational concerns for outcome-oriented matters. Indeed, getting good notices as a communicator probably is a consolation prize, like getting the Miss Congeniality award in a beauty contest or the sportsmanship trophy in Little League baseball--something conferred on employees whose accomplishments are not more highly valued.

Indirect and direct rewards Good communicators may benefit indirectly from their skills because they are better able to perform those aspects of their jobs that are more highly valued. In other words, good communicators may be recognized for other accomplishments as a result of their ability to communicate well. But, given the importance of communication for all facets of organized activity, effective communication should, rather than might, be rewarded.

The failure to recognize effective communication is surprising given that a great deal of experimental research has demonstrated that, with appropriate rewards, the content, form, amount and timeliness of communication can be altered to suit any model considered to be a desirable way of sharing information. Indeed, generalized "social reinforcers"--smiling, nodding one's head in agreement or saying "good" or "mmm-hmm"--can be used to develop particular patterns of speech, often without the speaker's awareness. That is, listeners can interpret and shape the context of information presented by a speaker without the speaker's knowing it. Moreover, there is ample evidence that negative and positive reinforcements are vital ingredients in teaching communication skills such as writing.

Beyond this experimental data, the importance of rewarding effective communication behavior is apparent in several well-known companies. According to Charles L. Decker's Winning with the P&G 99 (1998), memos at Procter & Gamble sometimes receive more attention than the ideas they contain. In one example, a P&G brand manager contacted an account executive at an advertising agency to compliment him on a memo he had written. Recalled the account executive: "Instead of saying, 'What a great idea,' he said, 'What a well-written memo!' That kind of struck home about the importance of the memo at Procter."

Simply listening constitutes a valued reinforcement, especially for upward communication. Employee-initiated contacts with their supervisors are stimulated by the supervisors' careful listening, the implication being that what employees say is worth hearing. In From Worst to First (1998), Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune described promoting upward communication via a toll-free voice mail number at his office. The secret of the ongoing success of this channel was that employees received a response from Bethune to their comments or questions. Listening, combined with positive feedback, is an especially potent approach for promoting communication. Robert Shook's Honda: An American Success Story (1988) described Soichiro Irimajiri, the former president of Honda of America, devoting two to three days every month to visiting each work area and reviewing employee ideas about saving time, advancing quality or improving safety. Employees who presented worthy ideas received praise directly from Irimajiri, which dramatically strengthened upward communication in the organization.

Creating a strong communication culture Without an overall plan, the communication culture usually evolves one interaction at a time. Yet it is too important to be allowed to grow in such a haphazard manner. Instead, a strong and pervasive communication culture must be cultivated, with policy serving as the grain of sand within the oyster that starts the pearl of communication growing. In general, clear policy provides a framework for the work climate and is the basis for determining how everyday activities reflect the company's beliefs and values.

Unfortunately, few firms have policies that commit them to encouraging and rewarding effective communication. If they exist at all, communication policies are likely to focus on properly representing the organization to external stakeholders or the proper use of communication technologies like e-mail. I have yet to see a company policy that commits the organization to promoting and rewarding effective interpersonal communication.

Managers and their subordinates may be stimulated to produce layer upon layer of effective communication by identifying important practices and behaviors for sustaining their work relationships. For example, several levels of managers from a financial institution developed a list of practices and observable behaviors that produce shared meaning with regard to communication (see "Practices to Achieve Shared Meanings," page 32). Similar practices have been identified that pertain to sending and receiving behaviors. Even if managers only acknowledge them when displayed, effective behaviors such as those described in this chart should occur more frequently in the future.

Although organizations profit substantially from effective communication, there is little evidence that employees reap many benefits as a consequence of being good communicators. Such neglect of good communicators is inexcusable given the fact that effective communication requires extraordinary self-discipline on the part of both senders and receivers. Without a supportive culture that makes it clear that the organization truly values effective interpersonal communication, employees are unlikely to expend the extra time and effort that are necessary to communicate properly.

Practices to achieve shared meanings

Managers at one financial services firm were asked to identify communication practices that promoted shared meaning between participants in a conversation. In order to recognize such practices, they also described observable behaviors that were associated with each of these practices. The result was a guide that helped the managers know whether a person was effectively sharing meaning on the job, and they then could appropriately reinforce the behavior.


Identifying valid meanings

* Recognizes ambiguity associated with a message

* Uses more than one decoding scheme to understand the several "meanings" of the message

Communication in groups

* Able to facilitate discussion in a group

* Summarizes the discussion


* Builds reliable networks before actually needing them for job-related information

* Gets direct and immediate access to coworkers with needed information

* Shares knowledge with those who need it--M.E.G.


* Asks for clarification

* Uses probing questions

* Tries to understand the message from the sender's point of view as well as his or her point of view * Uses reflective questions (e.g., "By that do you mean...?")

* Elicits conversation from all parties

* Identifies any consensus that emerges

* Recognizes different points of view on unresolved matters

* Develops personal/professional ties with associates with whom it may be necessary to work in the future

* Can get the attention of individuals with the expertise to help solve job-related problems

* Keeps members of various networks informed by distributing material as FYI (for your information)

Reality check

Need to change your organization's culture? To answer this question, you have to identify the current culture. In Managing the Communication Function, Diane Gayeski, Ph.D., provides a list of questions to help you do just that.

1. What characterizes your culture?

2. Which of those elements are important to retaining customers and employees?

3. Which of those elements may tend to impede performance?

4. How can you both maintain the values and styles that are the foundation of your identity and success and still develop a learning culture in which people and teams grow, and through which the organization learns, innovates, experiments and thrives?

5. How can the potential pitfalls of distance, diversity and size best be overcome and turned into opportunities?

6. What should your learning priorities be?

7. What are the elements (policies and practices) regarding communication and learning that will promote a distinctive culture and excellence in performance?

8. How does the organization learn and grow and yet maintain its identity?

For more information, visit

Michael E. Gordon is a professor of management and global business at the Rutgers Business School of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
COPYRIGHT 2006 International Association of Business Communicators
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:employee communication
Author:Gordon, Michael E.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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