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Face-to-face communication comes face-to-face.

I had just placed the crowning touches on what I was sure would be a multi-award-winning work of art for Communication World. In thousands of offices and cubicles around the globe, my IABC colleagues would simultaneously rise to thunderous applause for this monumental essay.

As they circulated my masterpiece throughout their organizations, I would receive volumes of mail praising my insight and thanking me for saving their jobs.

Then I read the November 1992 issue of the magazine and my dream came to an end.

You see, my article extolled the virtues of face-to-face communication, which every communicator of the '90s knows is the preferred source of information among employees in any organization. The research, after all, says so.

The story that shattered my dreams possessed an imposing headline: "Supervisors are NOT the Preferred Communicators."

As each word passed before my eyes, I felt myself being tried, convicted and executed. The judge was Angela D. Sinickas, ABC. I had fallen into the very trap she described. My communication audit asked the wrong question, or did not ask enough. My audit did not tell me what kinds of information our employees want to hear from their supervisors.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Sinickas' theory was proved to me a week later. I belong to a quality improvement team that is attempting to find out why our supervisors do not communicate face-to-face with people as frequently as people prefer. The quality improvement process includes a focus group with supervisors in our manufacturing facility. We found that our supervisors feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are asked to communicate. The supervisors appreciate the fact that people want to get information from them, but perhaps we should find out the specific topics our employees expect to be addressed by supervisors.

Gee, where had I heard that before?

Here I stand, a living example of a professional communicator who has not yet achieved ultimate knowledge of our craft. Still, I worry about all the communicators out there who may have panicked when they read Sinickas' article. Does this mean we should disregard face-to-face communication altogether? Certainly not. In fact, I still firmly believe that face-to-face dialogue is a crucial element of a well-researched, well-planned communication program.

I especially encourage people who work in employee communication to ask the specific questions Sinickas outlines in her November article. I suspect face-to-face communication will appear as a preferred source of information somewhere on your audit.

Although my audit did not go far enough, our use of face-to-face communication has helped to create a more open, candid environment in our work place. Face-to-face communication is not the only source of employee information in our facility, but a few face-to-face programs have proved to be especially useful. For those of you who want to enter this brave new world, here's a synopsis:

* Each of the senior managers in our facility hosts Round Table dialogues twice a month, which enable groups of no more than a dozen people to have an hour-long conversation with a senior manager. People attend with their peers: One group may consist entirely of production specialists and another may include supervisors. Grouping attenders this way helps focus the dialogue on issues with which everyone identifies.

An early buy-in from the senior managing committee at my facility has helped ensure the usefulness and value of Round Tables. There are no taboo subjects. People can ask any question and make any comment. If a group is shy at first, the senior manager who is acting as facilitator may have an unscripted opening statement about the business to get the conversation rolling. After several years of Round Table dialogues, I've noticed senior managers have become more relaxed and candid, which goes a long way toward building rapport with people throughout the business.

Round Tables benefit both managers and employees in our business. Our eight senior managers use them to get a clear idea of what's on people's minds. Trends are detected because of the volume of dialogues we hold. The real issues facing our people boil to the surface. Our people benefit by having the ears of senior managers on a regular basis, not just during a crisis. They get information directly from the source.

Admittedly, many people use Round Tables to vent their frustrations and to rid themselves of some anger from time to time. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it's healthy, especially when senior managers keep the dialogue constructive rather than becoming defensive.

Beyond the expected griping, we have begun to detect what we call "committed complaints." People who bring committed complaints to the table are willing to provide information and perhaps work with a senior manager toward a resolution. These action items are documented during the Round Table. The senior manager and the committed complainer both leave with a copy of the action item and their responsibilities for resolving it.

My role as communicator is to attend each session and record comments, then analyze them, looking for common themes. Each month I compile synopses of these dialogues and feed the information to the managing committee. Personally, I benefit from knowing the hot issues among our people. This knowledge makes me a more effective communication strategist.

* On those occasions when supervisors are asked to communicate information to employees, Talking Points, our one-page newsletter, makes the job easy and helps ensure a consistent message. In a facility with almost 2,000 people on three shifts, a consistent message is imperative.

Billed as a communication resource for supervisors and managers, Talking Points provides background, key points and any necessary actions and discussion starters. The newsletter prepares them to communicate with the people in their groups.

The ultimate customers of Talking Points are the people throughout our business. The immediate customers, however, are the supervisors and managers who are asked to do something many people hate: Stand up in front of a group of people and effectively communicate.

Response to Talking Points is just one of the elements in our communication plan. I still produce a monthly newspaper, and we continue to use other media as well, but based on my communication audit -- which I now admit is too shallow -- face-to-face is our communication vehicle of choice.

Our 1992 audit indicated that 91 percent of our people now prefer to get information from their bosses, up from 74 percent a year ago. Also, 78 percent named their bosses as an actual source of information, a 20-percent increase over 1991. This is a good start, and I can't wait to ask the right questions and watch the numbers rise. Here are some things I've learned after several years of using face-to-face communication:

* An open, participative culture is the foundation of an effective face-to-face communication program. A culture change in our unionized microelectronics factory is moving us toward self-management, which has provided the perfect environment for the introduction of face-to-face communication.

Many companies and organizations know face-to-face is the way to go, but their cultures do not yet support such a change. I talked with the employee communicator at one large business with multiple unions representing a great majority of its employees, including the first-line supervisors. This communicator described the environment as "awkward, uncomfortable and no-win." Face-to-face communication likely will not be effective in that business until a fundamental change is made in its culture.

* Senior management's commitment to face-to-face communication is vital. Senior managers set the example for the rest of the organization. Mid- and lower-level supervisors will be much more inclined to engage in dialogue if they see their bosses doing it. You can nudge your senior management toward a commitment by sharing face-to-face success stories with them and making them part of the process.

* The communicator's role is to manage face-to-face communication. You have two customers: the supervisors who communicate the information you provide, and the people who hear it. Discover the needs of each constituency. Do supervisors need more information? More training? Do they understand the information they're asked to communicate? Monitor the process.

* Don't neglect other forms of communication. Face-to-face can't do it all. It must be part of an overall communication strategy. Use your other media to support face-to-face efforts.

* Don't be afraid of face-to-face communication. Our Round Table dialogues and Talking Points require careful management by a professional communicator. In fact, since our move toward face-to-face communication, my work load has increased significantly. It's a good kind of work, too. Now I work more with people than I do with machines, and that's what real communication is all about.

Robert Holland, ABC, is public relations specialist at AT&T Microelectronics in Richmond, Va.
COPYRIGHT 1993 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:applying of face-to-face communication
Author:Holland, Robert
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1444
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