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The communicator's role in leading corporate culture change.

More and more, companies are turning to participative management as the means to becoming more competitive. The motivation is that increased employee involvement in the company will simultaneously increase commitment and productivity. Witness the growing popularity of ESOPs, employee stock ownership plans, as a corresponding trend.

Yet, a hierarchical, top down, cnetralized organization must go through a profound culture change to achieve the benefits true participative management can offer. Such change is frequently frightening and confusing to a work force comfortable with routine methods and procedures. The very commitment and productivity this change is intended to achieve can suffer disastrously.

Communication professionals must decide whether they will be victims of change, or change mangers.

To be managers of change, communicators must become experts on participative management and commit to taking a leading role. Too often, communication professionals assume that others should lead, and they should follow exclusively as fcilitators. Not this time. Not only are communication jobs potentially at stake, as well as the value of the professional, but also communicators must play a central role in managing this culture change, or it may not work at all.

Participative cultures create


The IABC Research Foundation's landmark study, "Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management," points out that excellent organizations are characterized by, among other things, participatve cultures and high job satisfaction among employees.

This characterization is taken from the current literature on management and organizational development. It is a value judgment. But is is also empirically true. Another study, by The Wyatt Company, has found that companies with a high level of participative management report improved quality, increased productivity, and a higher level of employee commitment to making the company succeed.

The "excellence" study suggests why this is the case. According to the research, all of the thousands of values and characteristics of organizations group into two basic corporate cultures: authoritarian and participative. All companies have characteristics of both cultures, but one is more likely to be dominant.

The study describes the authoritarian culture as restrictive. Innovation is stifled, departments operate separately, with no shared goals. Employees fear supervisors. Decision-making in the organization is centralized. The participative culture, on the other hand, is characterized by teamwork, shared power and decision-making, and is guided by common goals. The organization as a whole is open to ideas from outside.

So clearly, changing from an authoritarian culture to a participative one is no easy task. It requires a complete shift in the way the entire organization functions, and how everyone in the work force understands their jobs and their relationships with each other.

As in-house experts on participative management, communicators can define and help lead the development of answers to the following strategic questions relating to corporate culture change:

* What does participative management mean at this company, and what is top management's commitment to it?

* How will we get employees involved in making participative management work?

* How will we address the concerns of middle management, those most likely to feel threatened by participative management?

* What barriers will we face with this culture shift, and how will we overcome them?

* How will we communicate that this change will be slow, and how can we continue to promote it?

Based on my experience in working through such a corporate culture change at USG Corporation, I offer the following recommendations on defining your role in managing the communication function.

Counsel senior management

on participative management


First, you must counsel senior management on its overall approach to participative management. This includes making sure that management's committment to culture change is real. It also includes making sure that this genuine commitment is perceived as real by the work force. As Plunkett and Fournier, authors of "Participative Management," put it:

"The presentation of a manager's vision and road map for achieving participative management ... requires honesty and candor ... and a willingness to commit the resources needed to make participative management an integral part of the organization's culture. Employees will know if a manager is serious, and will commit to trying new ways if a manager is viewed as credible."

The authors warn that a program that is too narrowly focused will only frustrate employees. And failure to demontrate true management commitment will result in the effort being perceived merely as the "program du jour," condemning it to failure from the start.

At USG, top management clearly has demonstrated its commitment to participative management through the creation of and overt support given to an employee involvement task force.

"Giving employees a say in the development of participative management initiatives as well as decisions affecting their operations makes work more enjoyable, helps gain commitment, increases productivity, and gives the organization a tremendous new source of ideas," says Eugene Connolly, USG's chairman and chief executive officer.

Creating credibility for management's commitment is clearly the responsibility of the internal communication function. The communicator, as counsel to management, must help shape the strategies, messages and tactics to convey the new direction to the organization as corporate fact. Internal communication must convince the work force to believe in management's leadership, while at the same time helping management find its way down unfamiliar paths.

Educate employees and

motivate their involvement

Participative management moves responsibility and authority to fix problems and make decisions down to the lowest possible level in the organization. However, employees cannot be expected to fulfill their new roles unless they understand them and have reason to buy into them. Not only is change itself frightening, but also the comfort empoyees have with their current responsibilities will be removed. More active involvement in the company will not be immediately clear to employees -- nor will its benefits.

According to William C. Byham, Ph.D., in his book, "Zapp the Lightening of Empowerment," employee involvement programs will fail from employee confusion, lack of trust and the inability to determine whether their effort is succeeding.

Therefore, the communication professional must first educate employees about the business reasons for the move to participative management, and encourage them to become partners in the company's success or failure. Next, the communicator must appeal to employees' self-interest to motivate their willingness to learn new roles and take a much higher level or risk in performing their jobs. Showing them that participative management will allow them, at last, to perform their job functions as they believe they should be performed, and allow them the opportunity to stretch themselves and gain new power in the organization amounts to powerful motivation. Internal communication can do this compellingly through print and video, through case studies and testimonials.

Equally important, communication can convince employees that risk taking will be rewarded, and failure will not be punished. Conveying this philosophy will facilitate the culture change, while helping employees develop new accountabilities.

"People will walk a very high tightrope if they believe a safety net is in place. People will not accept empowerment without a failure safety net," state Plunkett and Fournier.

But don't forget: In your role as counsel to top management, you must make sure that this safety-net philosophy is, in fact, in place. You, as communicator, cannot make assurance or promises that your management has not committed to. You can, however, encourage management to make a visible commitment while using every opportunity to effectively communicate that commitment.

Assist middle managers in

adapting to change

Those most directly affected by -- and likely to fear -- participative management are middle managers. This group, are middle managers. This group, the agents of top-down decision making, will now lose a great deal of its control and power. If anyone stands to lose from participative management -- or at least, perceive that they lose -- it is middle managers. However, with your help, they too will understand that their role is changing, but their importance is undiminished.

A key message for middle managers is that the process of culture change, and the process of participative management, must still be managed. And that's their responsibility. Moreover, in a participative culture, their role will become the more demanding one of facilitator, rather than manager. They will still be extremely important to the organization.

The communicator can encourage middle managers to buy into this culture change and therefore help manage change by reassuring them of their continued value to the organization and helping them develop a new understanding of their role. This group is likely to need more information and more communication directed at their concerns. Where employees will need more information to help them make decisions and solve problems, middle managers will need more communication to help manage the process.

Even more important in terms of communication to middle managers is the changing nature of organizational communication in a participative culture. Traditional communication vehicles will become less important, as formal, top-down communication is replaced by informal, interpersonal communication. Perhaps the most important communicator in the new culture will be the middle manager.

Face-to-face communications will be regarded as one of the most important and desired means of disseminating information. According to findings by the Hay Group: "Most employees look to their immediate supervisors as their chief source of information." Middle managers certainly are best equipped to provide information that is relevant to particular functions. The communicator must find ways to provide middle managers with the information they need to keep the work force informed. You also must be willing to re-evaluate your traditional role and be willing to step aside as the primary source of communication to the entire work force. Innovative, interpersonal and decentralized communication will be the new order.

Identify and eliminate barriers

to accepting change

Participative management is not only the outcome of a flattened organization, but also it in turn flattens the organization in perhaps surprising ways. Old ideas about rank, for example, will be changed, too.

"[Participative management] means removing any sense of superiority or inferiority," states Peter Senge, author of "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning the Organization." "It is a relationship in which learning occurs in both directions, regardless of which party holds authority."

Participative cultures generally adopt an egalitarian philosophy.

Through communication audits and other research within the organization you can determine barriers to an egalitarian environment. For example, organizations are filled with symbols that differentiate classes of employees. It's your job to recognize and remove them. At USG, time clocks, color-coded hard hats, reserved parking and separate eating and locker facilities are among the symbols we have removed.

Realize that change is low

and use every opportunity

direct, promote and

encourage its direction

Organizational culture takes years to develop and employees enjoy a degree of comfort associated with longstanding norms. The nature of the work force and how it has been historically managed will help determine the pace at which an organization can adopt participative management policies and philosophies. As a communicator, you can influence that pace using your skills and communication mechanisms to promote the positive results of a participative culture. Executive speeches, bottom-up research, employee publications, annual reports and other communication vehicles can all illustrate the value added to the organization through the presence of greater levels of employee involvement. "Promoting the concept in employee publications is essential, but verbal veferences affirm the company's committment states Timothy Towle, president, boulevard Bancorp, an organization embracing employee involvement.

The change to participative management, especially from an authoritarian culture, is a challenging process that won't be accomplished overnight. Management and employees will need help understanding the demands of change, accepting -- and even embracing -- them. We, as communicators, have the ability to help facilitate change. By doing so, we can become a valued line function, rather than the "overhead" that others have too often regarded us. Helping our organizations implement a culture change that will make them more competitive aill give us the respect and credit the communication function deserves.

Matthew P. Gonring is director of corporate communications for USG Corporation in Chicago, and a graduate faculty member for Northwestern Unviersity's Medill School of Journalism Corporate Public Relations Program. Sydney K. Clark, an intern at USG and a graduate of the Northwestern program, contributed to this article.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Section 3: Communication in Transition - From Art to Science; includes related articles
Author:Gonring, Matthew P.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Previous Article:Business communication: untangling its identity.
Next Article:Down with quality program-itis.

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