You’re not listening to me

Closing the communication gap between employers and employees.

“They just don’t seem to get it.” “Why can’t they see what needs to be done?” “How can they be so out of touch with reality?”

How often have you heard these remarks in the hallways, meeting rooms, cafeterias and offices of your organization? But depending on who is making the comments, the “they” being referred to can differ dramatically. Executives could be talking about their employees, or employees talking about their managers. This perceptual gap in understanding leads to much of the confusion and conflict separating managers and employees.

Why worry?
Why worry about an understanding gap? Because a breakdown in communication between management and employees impedes the effectiveness and productivity of people.

A large understanding gap in an organization creates a significant waste of resources and lost opportunities due to the misalignment of perceptions and expectations between managers and employees.

One fast-food chain initiated a policy of employee “empowerment” to improve loyalty and morale. Banners and employee paraphernalia stressed the new outlook. But servers could not alter any process or food item without approval from their supervisor, even when asked to do so by a customer. Employees expressed cynicism about their being “empowered” and felt less loyal to the company than before.

The understanding gap is the difference between the perceptions of managers and the perceptions of employees about critical organizational functions and activities. The chart on page 23 gives a good indication of those differences and suggests it may not be surprising that problems arise when managers and employees try to communicate with one another. In fact, it is more unusual for a gap not to exist.

Reducing the understanding gap is an important element in aligning corporate strategies, managerial goals and employee expectations. Enhanced communication processes lessen or eliminate the gap and ensure that business goals are delivered with the clearest possible meaning.

What causes the gap?
The reasons for the understanding gap fall into two main categories: functional and temporal. The work performed by managers and employees usually affects the perception of their roles. Employees are responsible for the direct production or delivery of goods and services. Their jobs focus on the immediate work environment and requirements. Exposure to the “big picture” is often limited and employees seldom understand organizational change.

On the other hand, senior managers and executives present the vision and supervise and co-ordinate the activities of multiple groups of people and resources. They function within the parameters of a corporate hierarchy and political environment, regularly in situations of high ambiguity. They need to know and act on the “big picture” but often fail to appreciate the upheavals that change brings at the micro level.

The passage of time also influences the understanding gap. When a change or decision is made in the executive suite, it takes time for the information to flow to the employees who actually have to implement the new process or procedure. Even as the change is being formulated by senior management, they have the opportunity of coming to terms with the personal and professional stresses it entails.

As the change cascades through each level of the organization, people rationalize the implications. Typically, these issues are resolved before the change proceeds to the next level. Finally, the change lands with the employees, who have to deal with the implications, but frequently with less time and support than was available to managers.

By this time, however, the executives have internalized the original innovation, regained their equilibrium, and moved to the next change or decision.

Leaders unaware
Many business leaders are unaware of the factors leading to the understanding gap. Even those who are conscious of it either accept the situation or are unsure how to reduce it. Those who do close the gap reap the benefits of strategic alignment among employees and operational consistency.

How can the understanding gap be minimized? First, the size of the gap has to be established. The executives may not be the best people to make this determination because they are likely to have an overly optimistic view.

Therefore, to identify the extent and nature of the gap, formal feedback from employees and managers ought to be solicited through surveys, focus groups and selected interviews.

Once the extent of the gap is clear, an assessment and adjustment of both internal and external communication strategies is recommended. Systems have been developed for communicating to employees, such as newsletters, pamphlets, booklets, letters and memoranda, but very few organizations have instituted any formal means of allowing communication from employees to senior management.

Employee feedback questionnaires, “town hall” meetings, suggestion boxes and executive visits are some of the approaches used to gather information and attitudes from employees. The success of these initiatives, however, has been mixed because the motives of managers are not always apparent and the skepticism of employees rises when actions are not quickly taken or communicated.

In one case, a CEO diligently gathered the suggestions he received from employees but in full view of his staff tossed them in his wastebasket after reading each one. Even though he considered each suggestion, his apparent indifference undermined his credibility.

Modern communication technologies like the Internet, intranets and e-mail offer the promise of greater access for employees. With commitment, executives can gain immediate insight into employee attitudes about the decisions they make.

Still, psychological and bureaucratic barriers are more difficult to overcome than technological ones. Many senior executives feel threatened with the loss of control that occurs with greater information and communication access by employees. This problem will only disappear with coaching or training about the value and opportunities inherent with involved employees.

Others who, due to their inexperience, might not be comfortable with technology, will be reluctant or even hostile when required to use computers. Again, training is the answer.

The administrative systems of most organizations were created for industrial-age companies. Most of these processes are incompatible with information-age realities where employees communicate across divisional, departmental and hierarchical boundaries at the speed of light and possess only a modicum of deference for their superiors.

Reduce, minimize and modernize
Companies that want to harness the power of today’s information-age workforce need to reduce levels of authority, minimize and modernize the number of policies and procedures, and increase the number and variety of communication channels.

Knowledge about the understanding gap also acts to curtail its effects. Both managers and employees can learn to comprehend the understanding gap from the other’s perspective through training seminars and workshops that offer role plays or group exercises.

A realignment of communication methods and the delivery of training, however, may be inadequate for effectively closing the understanding gap. Recent research presented in Watson Wyatt’s WorkCanada 2000 study found that 45 per cent of managers rated the level of trust between managers and employees as good or very good; but only 29 per cent of employees did. Suspicion underlies the relations between the leaders and followers in many organizations.

To fully connect employees with the organization — and diminish the understanding gap — an extensive examination and transformation of the organization’s culture and values may be necessary.

What engages employees
When one of the objectives of a culture change is to create a more employee-engaged organization, the understanding gap is diminished. Employees are engaged when:

•they have an opportunity to provide input in the decision-making process, up to and including the most senior levels using such means as representatives or plebiscites;

•they can assume responsibility and authority for their own work with the ability to choose how their work is to be done; and

•they work in a collegial manner with managers, each respecting and accepting the roles and responsibilities of the other.

How can an engaged employee culture be achieved?

From the outset, senior managers have to act as the models and champions for the change. As the goals and expectations of the culture change are communicated, executives have to manifest and practice the values and norms that are expected.

If employee engagement is the objective, autocratic executives who reject input from their subordinates and employees will undermine the effort and have to be coached or dismissed. Similarly, employees who reject or sabotage the change will have to be counseled or discharged.

By exposing managers and employees to each other’s problems, perceptions and limitations awareness and acceptance will follow and the understanding gap will close.

At the outset of the change process, managers and employees should be represented on major planning and decision-making bodies or committees. As the change unfolds, communication mechanisms such as e-mail, Web sites or video kiosks should be provided to allow people to learn about the progress of the change initiative and to express their concerns directly to the leaders.

After the change has been instituted, semi-permanent or ad hoc groups of employees should be formed to review the progress and offer suggestions for improvement with a formal means for feeding their views upward.

Even with all of these activities, management must constantly demonstrate commitment and support to the engaged culture. Otherwise, the culture change is doomed.

Although the process is not easy, especially when other competing priorities — such as operations, finances, technology, competition — are intruding, the advantages of an engaged workforce and a reduced understanding gap can be enormous.

What are the implications?
To a greater or lesser degree, the understanding gap will be found in most complex organizations. By acknowledging the gap, constructive initiatives can be undertaken to minimize its size and reduce its negative impacts.

Internal communication systems have to focus on getting information to and, more importantly, from employees. Employees and managers can learn about the gap through training sessions.

A fundamental rethinking of the organization at the cultural level provides the most significant opportunity for engaging employees.

Although involving employees is essential for closing the understanding gap, managers cannot evade their responsibility as leaders: leaders must lead. They have to provide the vision and direction necessary for creating the organizational conditions where the understanding gap is minimized.

HR professionals have a significant contribution to make in reducing the understanding gap. They are best equipped to recognize the gap, explain its importance and develop appropriate remedial actions.

R. Owen Parker is the manager of surveys and research for Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s Canadian Research and Information Centre. He can be reached at (416) 943-6042 or [email protected]

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