Smart organisations are changing the way they communicate with their employees. For too long, senior individuals near the top of hierarchical pyramids drove the agenda, shaped the message and issued statements. To make matters worse, they rarely used their own words. We – their internal communicators – filtered and honed their language until it was perfectly safe and sterile for mass consumption.

Rarely did we expect – or seek – a response from employees. Feedback was limited to an annual engagement survey or the occasional ‘speak up’ mechanism. Both of which often felt like a tick-box exercise to everyone involved.

This approach characterised much of my early career in internal communications, which began in 1990 inside London’s Square Mile. Nearly thirty years on however, broadcasting corporate soliloquies at employees increasingly frustrates and fails them. Much has changed – not least the explosion of mobile technology and social media. People every­where have found their voice. They have the capability and desire not just to passively receive a message, but to participate in sharing and shaping it.

Moreover, in tough, competitive markets, organisations need the commercial benefits of a genuine dialogue with their people to stay ahead. If organisations look solely to their strategists or management consultants for fresh thinking, they are ignoring an army of people who know them best – those who create their products and deliver their services every day.

Another striking argument for a more conversational style of internal communication is made by MIT Sloan professor, Edgar Schein. In his book, Humble Enquiry, Schein examines corporate disasters, including nuclear plant accidents, the NASA Challenger disaster and BP gulf spill. He finds a common theme. Lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but this information was either not passed on, it was ignored or overridden.

“Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person,” writes Schein. Today, when business has become more technologically complex, interdependent and culturally diverse, strong relationships are needed to get things done but, coincidentally, more difficult to build. Hence the power of asking sincere, open-ended questions and listening hard to people’s answers.

Advances in digital and mobile technology mean there is now a wealth of different ways to create a dialogue with employees.  App makers jostle to help organisations connect, communicate and collaborate with employees on mobile devices.  In 2016, Facebook entered the fray with Workplace, its enterprise platform. The company says there are now two million paid users of its service, which enable businesses to ‘hold a two-way conversation with the entire organisation’.

There is little doubt mobile technology is enabling a more immediate and meritocratic style of communication to flourish inside organisations. However, we instinctively know one meaningful face-to-face conversation – even with its subtleties, nuances and meanderings – has a more lasting and powerful impact than any virtual exchange.

Dr Kevin Ruck is one of the few people to hold a PhD in internal communications. Much of his research has focused on ‘employee voice’ and how this helps to drive employees’ sense of engagement with their organisation. But for employees to be truly heard, says Ruck, leaders need to listen authentically. As employees, we quickly detect pretence in the process. “Leaders need to understand how to listen and embrace meaningful dialogue with employees based on an open mind, heart and will,” Ruck writes. He advises leaders to forgo the slick PowerPoint presentation and instead create a setting in which employees feel it is safe to speak out.

This chimes with the work of Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, who has identified the concept of ‘psychological safety’ at work. Her research suggests companies with a trusting workplace culture perform better. Psychological safety is felt when employees can give candid feedback, openly admit mistakes and learn from each other. In her book, The Fearless Organisation, Edmondson argues this kind of culture gives organisations a competitive edge. “The failure of an employee to speak up in a crucial moment cannot be seen. This is true whether that employee is on the front lines of customer service or sitting next to you in the executive board room. And because not offering an idea is an invisible act, it is hard to engage in real-time course correction. This means that psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.”

Smart organisations are now listening to the wisdom of their crowds. A genuine conversation with employees is a rare win-win. It is emotionally engaging for employees and commercially beneficial for organisations. As the US president Calvin Collidge once said: “No man ever listened himself out of a job."



Katie Macaulay is the managing director of AB, the UK’s longest established internal communications agency. She is host of The Internal Comms Podcast and author of From Cascade to Conversation, Unlocking the Collective Wisdom of Your Workforce.