Over the past 20 years there have been a number 'employee involvement' initiatives - BS5750, ISO9000, team briefing, Investors in People, cascade briefing and Quality Circles etc. Sometimes these have been introduced virtually as fashion accessories - there are more than a few employers, qualified for Investors in People recognition, who do anything but invest in their people - or even communicate with them. The last phrase summarises the underlying advantage of all these initiatives - if employers and employees have open, sincere and real COMMUNICATION, regardless of the aims of the process, progress will be achieved. Of course if there was effective communication and consultation these initiatives would be largely unnecessary.

Demand

To around 75% of the average employer's workforce, the need to know what is going on within their employer's business is real and failure to provide this negates efficiency and productivity - and thus profitability.

Information sought by employees

Information required

Number

%

Future plans and policies

165

59

Detailed financial information

128

46

Sales/order books

79

28

organisational details

72

26

Pay and conditions

64

23

Personnel

46

16

Productivity/wastage/quality

37

13

Health and Safety

22

8

Results of a recent survey asking employees what they most wanted to know.

Generally most employees want to know most about things related to their own part of the Organisation and where they fit into the overall body. The high score given above to requirements for detail about the future is also understandable. Ironically these preferences are items on which there will probably be least available information.

Means of Providing Information

During a series of 'personal skills' training seminars held throughout the UK between 1997 and 2004, around 2000 employees (mainly supervisors or more junior staff) from a variety of companies were asked by the author to rate their preferred methods of in-company communication.

Employee Communication-Means Preferences
  1. Face to face personal interview with immediate superior - over 80% preference

  2. Small briefing (that is up to 20/25 people) within department - around 30% preference

  3. Larger inter-departmental briefing - around 15% preference

  4. Written information - 10% preference if this was the only means used. Since this is the way the vast majority of information is disseminated we have the situation that the way fewest people wish to receive information is the way that most do.

Cascade Briefing

The principle of cascade briefing (as advocated by the Work Foundation, formerly the Industrial Society, under its then charismatic Director, John Garnett) is that people with the ultimate responsibility for generating employee communication are senior management and that, starting with them, information should cascade through the Organisation like water flowing downhill.

Cascade Briefing

Using the cascade process senior management brief middle management who brief junior management who brief supervision who brief employees. Whilst this may be fine in principle, it can founder if not introduced properly and/or if a number of the suppositions on which the process is built prove false.

The suppositions are that everyone is:

  1. committed to the principle;

  2. able and willing to brief adequately;

  3. able to answer the questions that the briefing session will generate; and

  4. are prepared to remove all barriers to the disclosure of information.

Unfortunately some, or all, of these may not be valid since:

  1. There can be a resistance from some managers to both the principle and practice. Forcing someone to carry out a procedure will not necessarily ensure that it is carried out effectively.

  2. Few people are natural communicators and messages can become distorted either if the speaker does not understand the matter fully, or cannot deliver the message in a clear way - i.e. in terms capable of being understood by the audience. A report from management consultants, the Khalid Corporation, stated that directors rate public speaking their most daunting business activity and that:

    'people in business need presentation skills to be successful but there is still a lot of fear around this area.'

    Lorna Sheldon, Managing Director of The Complete Works, comments:

    'Often their delivery lets them down but they don't have people around them to tell them that, so they continue to bore audiences and fail to motivate staff.'

  3. Some managers hoard information (not least to preserve their power) and dislike passing it on.

  4. Where the subject matter is particularly complex and not fully understood by the briefer it is very unlikely that they will be able to convey it correctly, let alone answer questions which are an important part (in many respects the essential part) of the briefing process. Faced with questions they can either try and bluff their way out or admit ignorance and need to refer back. This the briefer may feel is a reflection on them, i.e. they may feel that having to say 'I don't know' undermines their authority.

Message Transmission

However, the major problem of the whole process is the fact that messages can be misconstrued in repetition. Making oneself understood can be difficult at the best of times but when one's message needs to be passed through several intermediaries, almost inevitably it will be misinterpreted, misconstrued, and/or misunderstood. It is generally accepted that each time a message is passed on between 15% and 25% of the true meaning will be lost. Unfortunately this does not mean the message simply becomes shorter. Whilst this would not be ideal, at least 75% of the message might get through. What can occur is that inaccurate or imprecise data and/or opinions is/are substituted for the 'missing message' passages in order to make up something similar to the original volume. If this were not serious enough, at least it assumes that the parties who misconstrued the message genuinely wished to pass it on. In some cases those involved may deliberately distort or suppress part or all of the message. Even with the utmost commitment to the truth it is difficult to repeat other than the simplest message in the way intended by the originator. This simple truth reflects the inherent danger of cascade briefing. However, it can be made even worse since delegating communication empowers those down the line with the opportunity, should they wish, to filter and skew the messages deliberately. In addition, any feedback or return messages also run the risk of being mangled in repetition, if not similarly filtered.

Each of the problems highlighted above can be overcome by adequate training which itself underlines the necessity for any such procedure to be introduced only after all involved have received training in making presentations and dealing with questions. This discloses another problem - that cascade briefing's greatest value (that of disseminating information to a large number of people in a short space of time by using the management chain of authority) is also its greatest weakness. The process begs questions - and these need answers. We need a 'reverse cascade' by which such questions can 'flow up' to the Board, and that answers and further information can 'flow back'.

Even then, some managers may 'filter out' questions which they feel may reflect badly on themselves or they concern matters they do not want discussed - or known at a more senior level.

It is easy to get water (but not necessarily information) to flow downhill - it may, in this context, be virtually impossible to get it to flow uphill yet the whole point of briefing is to do just that. A one way flow is not communication - it is merely information, without any evidence the information has been understood or even received. To generate good communication (and thus encourage commitment and motivation to help achieve the aims of the process) a two way flow is essential.

Reverse Cascade

Senior Management Briefing

Combating the inherent problems of the cascade process by setting up an effective 'reverse cascade' can pose so great a logistic problem that it may be preferable rather than using the cascade, to appoint one senior manager to carry out all the briefings on a regular basis. This has a number of advantages:

  • The quality of the various briefings is more likely to be even.

  • The message is likely to be the same on each occasion.

  • The briefings themselves may gain in prestige by being conducted by a senior manager or director.

  • By virtue of their seniority and personal knowledge, the briefing manager/director should have personal access to all information which should allow them to answer most of the questions posed and/or can revert back individually to those which they have no immediate answer having carried out further research.

Conversely, the fact that the briefings are being conducted by a senior manager may stifle some contributions and great care needs to be taken to preserve the authority of the intervening levels of management. At least, the process should demonstrate to the employees the genuine interest of senior management which may have a beneficial effect on morale and commitment - and thus, involvement and enhanced performance.

Team Briefing (TB)

These are the most favoured type of briefings particularly if, in addition to a little time being spent on 'corporate' matters (again comprehension of corporate matters may need to be assisted by means of the provision of a written management brief), there is additional time to consider more local items - particularly those of keenest interest to the participants. Since much of the subject matter is of direct interest to the employees - their own work and problems and difficulties related thereto - and the interface is with their immediate superior, they are less likely to be deterred from speaking out. In all kinds of briefing the input of the leader is essential, but this may be more of a challenge for leaders of team meetings since they are likely to be supervisors untrained in giving presentations. All those running such sessions should be trained. The training of supervisors (and all those responsible) should not only address the principles of giving presentations but also provide guidance regarding effective methods of encouraging interfacing by encouraging questions.

The Work Foundation conducted a survey ('Team Briefing - Managing Best Practice') of employers using TB. 62% of respondents felt it was effective in their organisations. The methods for receiving feedback from employees who must feel that comments will be responded to was determined as an important facet. Feedback from TB is seen as the most effective listening method by 75% of respondents.

Quality Circles

To a large extent, if used properly, all the above two-way processes are 'quality circles' since it should be in everyone's interest that the best means of attaining the output of the Organisation should be used. Employees ideas are invaluable in this regard - after all, assuming they are doing the job reasonably well or better, who knows better than the job-holder how to do the job and the problems inherent in it? So, if there are proposals to change the procedure, process etc., the job-holder's ideas should be the first to be sought. In the same series of seminars referred to above, I asked each session whether they had ever been in the situation where a process they were performing had been changed without them being asked for their views. On every occasion there was at least one person with such an experience - and usually a story to recount of the great difficulties that had been experienced in implementing the changes, usually since the decision-maker had not appreciated the detailed problems inherent. This is the epitome of managerial arrogance - the assumption that management knows best and doesn't need to ask is a dangerous fallacy. If we ask the jobholder for their views and if at least some are accepted, we gain from the job-holder 'owning the changes'. They are then more likely to help the change work. To no small extent one of the greatest challenges for management in the 21st century is the management of change.

One does not need a fancy title to take the obvious (and well-mannered) approach, when there are changes required, of at least asking those tasked with implementing the changes for their views. Good ideas are not the monopoly of management. Quality circles are all about involvement - in essence about COMMUNICATION and consultation with and motivation of employees. Without genuine communication it is unlikely that real progress can be made. Management may have many valid messages to relay to their employees but it is only if they are prepared to listen that they will derive real value from the process - employees very often have excellent ideas and SUGGESTIONS if only someone will listen.

1 comments

  1. christophersmmiller // March 10, 2009 at 3:53 PM  

    Very nice tips. Thanks for sharing!
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