Lao Tzu, the quest for organic communication at work, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, please stop proposing newsletters

Some backstory: I’m in this class right now about employee engagement. It’s a pretty interesting class for the most part, although it can get sidetracked with a lot of millennial vs. Boomer and OMG what does it all mean discussions, but I suppose ultimately that’s neither here nor there. There were two major projects in this class. I can’t go into deep detail about either of them because there’s some proprietary info in there, but essentially they were both consulting-esque in nature; one involved working with a city on promoting their employee engagement, and one involved looking at data points from the University of Minnesota’s employee engagement survey and making recommendations to bolster the low-lying areas.

Most of the people in this class will enter HR/operations-type roles at Fortune 500 companies in about three-four months, so it gives you a little snapshot of the “next gen” of thinking in that space (a very small sample size, but a sample size regardless). I’ve found a couple of the things interesting and did some cross-research on a few of them, so I wanted to see if I could make heads or tails of ideas around communicating effectively at work (that’s pretty much the major issue that comes up in every data point/presentation).

1. Honestly, and this isn’t really disputable — the more communications that are put out there, that just means the more people are ignoring. Humans don’t have the capacity to internalize and contextualize everything they receive over 8-9 hours; most studies show that you’re “on” for at most about 4.5 hours of your workday, and you’re probably checking out 30 seconds into every presentation/e-mail/meeting anyway. (That’s a generalization, but it’s probably somewhat true for most people who might be reading this.)

2. In most of these projects/presentations/proposals in this class, communication is at the center of everything, as I mentioned above. One thing I find interesting/terrifying is that most people propose creating an “employee newsletter” (this happens in 95 percent of cases) and/or “doing more Town Hall-style meetings” (probably 90 percent of cases). On those two points: I think most organizations likely have an internal newsletter, or at least a cork board in the break room / landing page of the Intranet / hopefully something where people can get news. Talking about making an employee newsletter “more robust with information” really just means “more cluttered.” If you open a PDF and it’s six pages, you’re disengaged. If the e-mail is in browser and it’s a huge scroll bar, you’re disengaged. One group was talking about “adding some healthy recipes to the bottom.” That’s a tremendous idea on surface; I don’t know if it has any actual value in execution. People may not even reach that part of the e-mail. Town Hall style meetings? Again, great on surface. In execution, they often seem like buzzword/rah-rah shows for the top people (who possess all the info anyway). They don’t often seem transparent.

3. So what’s the answer? Are we doomed to not receive effective communication unless we tirelessly climb the ranks and become top dogs? Maybe. But what if the answer was reverse intuition: what if we tried to communicate less at work? Scoff all you want, but consider Lao Tzu:

“The wise leader speaks rarely and briefly. After all, no other natural outpouring goes on and on. It rains and then it stops. It thunders and then it stops…The leader teaches more through being than through doing. The quality of one’s silence conveys more than long speeches.”

There’s a point in that article about how orgs have become bloated and you have communications teams telling leaders “we need a statement about this and this and this and that” all the time. That’s partially true. What’s even more relevant is that what you’re looking for in an organization is actually organic communication. A newsletter, or a Town Hall, or mandated all-in meetings/e-mails — those are not actually organic. Those are forced. You want managers and employees to exchange information as if it were a regular routine of their day, not via MailChimp.

4. So, how do you make communication organic? I’ve mentioned this before, but a lot of it comes back to re-contextualizing two things that people are often afraid to re-contextualize: (a) the workday and (b) the meeting. First off, the workday doesn’t need to be 9am – 5pm, or 8am – 7pm, or whatever it is. (I’m predominantly talking about white-collar office jobs here; some factory-type jobs, although those are declining in America, may need specific shifts.) If people are most effective from 10am – 2pm and 7pm – 9pm, that should be their workday. Face time and seat time mean too much to employers. What should matter is effective time. If you focus on that, you’re going to get more trust buy-in from the employee — and better results. Ultimately, this should be tied to stronger, more organic communication.

On the meeting side, you honestly need to set up a penalty program for managers. All-team, whole-group, conference-room meetings more than twice a month? We’re taking money from your paycheck. (That’s likely illegal and so it wouldn’t fly, but it’s an idea.) The idea behind organic communication is that it all shouldn’t feel so formulaic, like you’re bouncing from one meeting to the next. So shift the modalities — some walk-and-talks, some ‘scrum’ meetings standing up, some timed check-ins (five minutes, no more), etc. You want the information being conveyed to feel fresh and relevant. The standard office meeting doesn’t do that.

The idea behind meetings, essentially, is that if you get everyone on a project in one place and you run down all the aspects of the project, there will be collective buy-in and everyone will have the necessary information. For about six million different reasons, that doesn’t really happen that way. Less meetings, with quicker, more natural check-ins, and more time doing work as opposed to talking about work … this could/should be the future. Not “a new company newsletter!” Not “more Town Hall-style meetings!”

5. Sometimes I do wonder if, when people fill out employee surveys, they always put down “… communication could be better…” because it’s a fairly common thing to put down, even if their boss is specifically pretty good at communicating. Ah, the bias of surveys…

6. This is a good article on communicating at work and I’d argue that this point, if done in a walk-and-talk/pop-in-the-office setting (as opposed to a regimented meeting), is ideal:

Another strategy Friedman draws from newscasting: Hit the headline first. Too many of us are just plain long-winded, she says. “People don’t need to know everything we know,” she explains. “Think about what the single most important point is that you need to make, the central idea. If your computer died or the fire alarm went off, what would be the one thing they needed to hear?”

We do talk around things too much in office culture. Direct is better, because everyone’s time is precious, regardless of where they are on “the ladder.”

7. Final thing I’d say, from personal experience: as a manager, try to take some interest in your employees and their projects. Work, time-wise, is basically a second family — you don’t need to be best friends with ’em, but you should at least have a contextual idea what they’re passionate about and what they’re doing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a boss/supervisor in a hallway or a break room and they’ve said something to me like, “Whatcha working on?” It’s happened to me probably 50 times at different jobs. I always think to myself … Shouldn’t you know? I think people often confuse “showing interest” or “being empathetic” with “Oh God, they’ll see me as a friend and I’ll lose my power advantage then…” Those are completely different things. Interest/empathy strength the ties with the employees, so they’ll likely work harder for you.

I’ve ranted a lot above, probably, but it comes down to this: less regimentation of communication, and less channels through which to do it. Short, organic, and direct. Focus on the work, not talking about the work. Take an interest. Show some empathy, ya filthy animals.

Ted Bauer