Communication at work: how executives can lead with the right message

Tips for developing leadership strategies that create a healthy workplace and yield results

Author: Devon Maloney17th December 2019

How executives communicate in the workplace is vital to a company’s success, yet there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” and that certainly holds true for management. After all, it’s not just what you say that matters, but how and when you convey it.

With so many tools for communication at work available, business leaders need to figure out the best strategies for maintaining employee engagement and alignment while building a positive work environment if they want to maintain company growth. Here are four ways executives can lead with the right message and successfully cultivate an empowering, nurturing workplace culture when communicating with employees.

1. Regularly solicit ideas and questions from employees

Duane Bray, the global head of talent for design and consulting firm IDEO, notes that many companies’ best ideas are incubated from the bottom up. That’s why it’s important for managers to regularly offer opportunities for team members to contribute ideas and for leaders to listen accordingly.

“When leaders want to initiate a project, we always explain the underlying need and give a clear sense of the desired outcome so that people get aligned around a common goal,” Bray says. “The best strategies are ones that people can make their own.”

To survey what’s top of mind for employees, Whirlpool CEO Marc Bitzer uses the company’s employee engagement platform to conduct live-streams where he answers employee questions in real time.

Says Kathy Craig, the senior manager of interactive communications for Whirlpool’s global communications team, “[Bitzer] said at one point, ‘I’m strongly convinced, if our employees understand the broader context of the entire company, it allows them to make better decisions in their respective work environments,’ and it is really true. And it has trickled down from leadership and to other leaders now.”

The message

When executives regularly communicate company-wide goals and engage with employees across the organization, it builds alignment. It also helps overcome perceived barriers between senior leadership and the wider team.

2. Be open to learning and implementing employee feedback

Most employees want to see more employee engagement in their companies. Yet, better engagement and communication at work at work requires leadership to should make themselves as available as possible to the people they work with, both in defining decision-making processes and soliciting feedback.

For example, over the past few years, outdoor apparel giant Patagonia has done away with performance ratings altogether. Instead, the company implements an app-supported continuous feedback program bolstered with quarterly one-on-one meetings.

“When you ask for feedback, you create generosity in the system and it explodes exponentially,” says Dean Carter, Patagonia’s head of human resources, finance, and legal, in an interview about the program. “It’s much more powerful to ask than to just get it unsolicited.”

Carter says that, as the company rolled out the program in stages, employees who participated in it were earning far higher bonuses than those who didn’t. Ultimately, it’s bred widespread trust throughout the company.

What makes an ongoing feedback model so great is that it normalizes honest communication at work, in a world where even managers have trouble giving negative feedback. In one 2017 study of about 7,600 respondents, 44% of managers revealed that they found it stressful to give feedback, and a follow-up questionnaire with about 7,800 respondents showed that 21% avoided it altogether.

The message

There are plenty of online collaboration and feedback tools—such as anonymous surveys with built-in analytics—that can help you check in on how your employees are feeling. There are also platforms to help leaders evaluate team performance. Companies that want to follow Patagonia’s lead can even adopt a policy of full transparency with apps that allow employees to ask questions and provide praise or constructive feedback for colleagues.

3. Publicly live and convey your corporate values

When you support a culture of collaborative leadership and communication at work—bringing managers, executives and staff out of silos—you allow your team more agency and autonomy. Just look at Netflix: Independent decision-making is listed as its top company value.

“I pride myself on making as few decisions as possible in a quarter,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a 2018 TED talk. “What we’re trying to do is build a sense of responsibility in people and empower them to do things.”

Slack’s 2019 State of Work report shows that aligned workers—those who drive results because they feel connected to their company’s vision and strategy—are both results-oriented and independently motivated. What’s more, 75% of them feel empowered to make decisions, and 90% have a clear understanding of what success looks like, all of which is communicated by leadership.

The message

As a company leader, you’re responsible for conveying your organization’s mission and values. Publish those values in a highly visible place so that employees know what you stand for and what’s expected of them.

The most effective way for managers to create an engaged company culture is strong communication at work. Luckily, it can also be one of the easiest.

There’s no shortage of apps that make workplace communication more immediate and accessible than ever. All leaders need to do is invest time in building an ecosystem that best suits their teams.

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