I was shocked to hear what our employees had to say

“I was shocked to hear what our employees had to say.” That’s a statement we’ve heard more than once from some of the managers we’ve discussed with during the last few years. There are quite a few different reasons why people might say something like this, but nevertheless, it means there are some underlying issues to resolve.

So, if you find yourself dumbfounded by a shockingly unexpected employee response, you might want to read on. We’ll take a more detailed look at some of the common issues in communications and culture and break down key components in resolving them. We’ll also provide a brief guideline on things you can do to avoid these issues to begin with.

Overall, these challenges can usually be broken down into two categories: communicational and cultural. Communicational challenges are much easier to fix than cultural. When it comes to changing culture, new values typically require a long time to take root. Communicational changes are usually about making sure that the correct information, in both quality and quantity, gets transferred between different parties. While that might not always be easy, it’s still much easier than changing both people’s mindsets and behaviour.

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Dismantling Communicational Barriers

There are two main categories of reasons why information might get astray along the way of communication. Either too little information was received from the front lines of the company, or being passed to the employees. By this, I mean that either the management hasn’t been able to get an understanding of what employees actually know, or the original information, received by the employee, was insufficient to begin with. Attempting to make an educated comment on scarce information often results in cumulative confusion between the interacting parties.

Employee was misunderstood (or not listened to)

Misunderstanding what the employee is attempting to convey is an issue, especially in sizable organizations. However, it is only the result of an underlying cause. Management often uses too little time to hear what the employees really have to say. It might be deemed unnecessary to use time and energy, of which many managers have scarcely, to interpret every piece of information coming from employees. Regardless, it is important to be able to find relevant pieces from the flow, as these confusions in communication tend to arise from situations where an employee is listened to only half of the time, or where the language and terms used by the employee aren’t familiar. Thus a message based on too little interaction may be taken subjectively at face value and thus misunderstood. This, then might result in a situation where the managing party just accepts the false interpretation in disbelief and continues forward to other more pressing matters.

It is important to remember that not everyone is equally charismatic and that this applies to managers as much as to employees. Some may leave certain details out of conversations, as to them, they may seem self-evident. Some dispart too much, thus drowning the relevant specs of information under inconsequential small-talk. Understanding and addressing individual differences has a key role in good employee engagement, the burden of which largely rests on managers.

If faced with unexpected replies, it is helpful to repeat yourself. Don’t assume that the employee is at fault, but rather try to understand why you’re both in this situation to begin with. Just simply ask your questions again or verify whether both of you understood everything correctly. This helps in avoiding simple misunderstandings, which might later blow out of proportion. Step by step, aim to shape the nature of the conversations towards a mindset of clear and thorough expression.

Employee had insufficient information

If the problem lies within the quality of information that was originally conveyed to the employee, the issues may be intertwined with cultural shortcomings. Especially, if this appears a recurring problem. Transparency might not have the necessary cultural foothold, which makes it difficult for employees to get hold of all the relevant information; information that is required for constructing informed replies, both towards customers and colleagues.

Large organizations always have an overflow of information, most of which isn’t relevant for everyone. Figuring out who should know what, and then finding the right channels for communication is borderline impossible in most large organizations. So, restrain from judging employees based on their inadequate answers, they’re most likely just misinformed due to challenges in locating relevant information.

Knowledge is power, but hoarding knowledge doesn’t usually lead to success. Reevaluate and reassess the current methods of communicating information to relevant stakeholders. Optimally, these methods should by default be based on transparency. Once you can migrate from one party just telling something to the other on a need-to-know basis towards a more transparent base of searchable information, it’s easy for anyone to find the relevant pieces of information. This way, you’ll have gone a long way in ensuring that no one is forced to be ignorant.

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Filling Cultural Voids

Misunderstandings in conveying information can also happen due to cultural aspects, which are slightly more difficult to alter. The ultimate goal for an organization is to have a culture that embraces transparency; a culture where working together towards a common understanding is fundamental. It is about putting heads together and focusing on the big picture. Individuals at every level of the organization should ultimately have an autonomous desire to learn and develop themselves, as well as the organization. This reduces the risk of blaming individuals for collective issues and shortcomings and rather focuses on fixing the problems through joint effort.

Actively ignoring others

Misinterpreting a received message due to contempt or prejudice, probably has one of two reasons as the underlying cause. Either the culture has issues in promoting the right values, or the individual has the wrong mentality for the position. In both cases, there is often a significant divide in status. The managerial party may feel as though the input of the worker need not be taken as seriously due to statutory differences. On the other hand, the worker may feel as though management doesn’t fully comprehend the concrete side of the organization, but rather focuses on making decisions and constructing plans without acknowledging or deeply understanding the front-line impact. This ultimately may cause for a lot of valuable ideas and insights to go unheard. Learning from and listening to those of different stature costs next to nothing. It is simply a matter of mindset adjustment. To be at your best, you need to truly understand the organization and for this you must hear out every piece of it. Listening to every branch and level of the organization, regardless of stature, increases employee satisfaction and helps create a truly wholesome picture.

If the problem resides in individual members of management, it should be relatively straight forward to steer them on the right path. However, simple course corrections aren’t always enough. If it’s clearly due to a wrong mindset for the position, it may be wise to consider making changes in personnel. Ultimately, the goal is a transparent and supportive culture, where obtuse prejudice has become obsolete.

Passively ignoring the big picture

Sometimes the message conveyed by the employee is ignorant, even despite plentiful information being available and sufficient communication practices being in place. Employees, and often managers alike, may simply fall short of contributing on a necessary level. If this is the case, the issues are likely to reside in company culture and how it encourages employees to participate in constructive development of the organization. It is important to remember that usually people aren’t ignorant by default. Most are driven to such a state of mind by spending years in a culture that doesn’t value uncompromised individual input. Engaging employees in a way that accounts individual variation is management’s responsibility and thus fixing motivational shortcomings should always be assessed from that angle. Don’t blame employees for not communicating enthusiastically but rather find out why they don’t feel driven to contribute to their full extent.

It is important to avoid getting discouraged by individual unsupportive comments. You simply cannot have an environment where everyone is always onboard with unwavering attitudes. The company culture can just as well be a source for strength, as a draining void for motivation. If employees work for the wrong reasons or simply to make ends meet, it naturally causes a decrease in overall motivation. So, invest in boosting and revitalizing your company culture. It may yield benefits only years after the initial investment, but is always worth it on the long run.

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What can I do differently?

It is impossible to avoid all communicational misunderstandings and always have everyone glowing with integrity. However, there are things that can be done to reduce the number of these communicational and cultural mishaps. Ultimately, it comes down to preventing problems through fixing the underlying causes.

Cultural issues are a common underlying cause and to fix them you need to celebrate a culture of transparency, sharing and continuous learning. It is important to show how necessary these values are in a working culture by showcasing their importance through concrete, actionable, changes. One can never change culture in isolation from daily operations.

One can never change culture in isolation from daily operations.

One way to do that is by making non-confidential information and documents more easily and openly accessible for anyone interested with the help of tools such as Universe. Another great way to get there is to introduce more transparency and bi-directional discussion into the decision-making process with tools such as Viima. Once people understand not only what decisions were made, but also the rationale behind those decisions, they’ll have a much better understanding of the diverse and complex field of issues one needs to consider when making decisions.

Disengaged employees are a common source for these problems. Not being in tune with the organization — and its mission — creates a lack of motivation that decreases the overall level of legitimate contribution. This area can be improved by activating individuals to participate and to be more proactive. After all, engaged individuals are more likely to voice their opinions and give honest input. Always be open to differing opinions from employees of different statures as this will ultimately lead to better decisions being made, even though their solutions to problems might not work as such.


Final thoughts

There are many cultural and communicational mountains to climb in every organization, as they are a natural part of organizational development. Just don’t start pointing fingers or blaming certain individuals as the sources for issues, but rather look at the big picture. Through systems thinking you can create a more holistic picture of the different entities that your organization comprises of. This then breeds insight into the real underlying issues causing your day-to-day struggles. Even if the problem simply appears to be in the attitudes of certain individuals, the real underlying cause is likely to reside in something much grander. Always focus on mapping the entire chain of causation; it is the only way to fix the root of the problem, thus ultimately purging the problem itself.

Misinformation tends to flourish when certain individuals or processes are too important in the chain of communication, and as we all know, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Finding ways to bypass these bottlenecks helps tremendously in avoiding unnecessary confusion. One way to do this is by making most data easily accessible and searchable to the relevant parties. This kind of transparency reduces ignorance and feelings of frustration, thus also strengthening culture through improved working conditions. It creates a positive feedback loop, which can just by itself resolve many issues related to common misunderstandings between different levels of your organization. Let’s hope you never have to hear “I was shocked to hear what our employees had to say” again!

Atte Isomäki.jpg
Atte is responsible for content creation at Viima, the best way to collect and develop ideas. For more of his thoughts, visit Viima’s blog on innovation and leadership.


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