Speak-up and start a conversation
Manifesto for organizational climate change

In my first blog communication climate takes center stage. Communication climate is about the quality of the relationships that exist in an organization. And it is my impression that in far too many organizations these relationships have turned pretty sour. Which is bad because without a healthy climate, all the efforts organizations are making to engage and mobilize people – billions are invested in internal communication and HR-programs worldwide each year – are bound to fail. A plea to start focussing on mutually rewarding relationships and to let corporate communication evolve into its next stage: corporate conversation.

What is a healthy communication climate?

Most researchers agree that a healthy communication climate is characterized by trust, openness, participation and supportiveness. If you were to visit such an organization, the first thing you’d notice might be the light atmosphere, a certain buzz, liveliness and informality, not unlike places where people go to enjoy themselves. Maybe you could not even tell right away who is in charge (if anyone at all, as such organizations have relatively few supervisors) and who’s not. If you’d spend a few more hours you might notice a lot of dialogue going on, maybe even lively discussions. The general atmosphere of self-evident spontaneity would contrast starkly with the uneasiness and aloofness so often seen when dialogue is merely symbolical. This is just my projection of course. Climates, even healthy ones, come in many variations.

A new sense of urgency

In the 70s researchers have linked communication climate to organizational outcomes such as job satisfaction, engagement and performance. Intuitively this makes sense. Who would not feel more satisfied and engaged and perform better in a workplace where you can be yourself and feel respected? Clearly, fostering a healthy communication climate has always made good business sense. But for a number of reasons, in the present day and age, communication climate should really top the priority list. Without pretending to be exhaustive I describe a few of them.

Workplace relationships aren’t what they used to be

During the last decades, employees have come to re-interpret their relationships with employers. Life-time employment has been all but abandoned. Restructuring and downsizing is the rule rather than the exception. Many employees live in permanent fear of losing their jobs. And to make things worse, an endless parade of eye-catching fraud and mismanagement cases has caused trust in employers to take a deep dive.

Changing values

People’s values have changed too. The old-school work-ethic for example, is being replaced by a preference for a healthier work-life balance. Even our understanding of what motivates people is undergoing significant change. An impressive body of research has undermined the cynical and anachronistic paradigm of the employee as homo economicus: inherently selfish, untrustworthy and only to be motivated by money. We now understand that people seek purpose, autonomy and learning. And that these so-called soft factors are stronger and more sustainable motivators than financial rewards.

The digital age

In the age of the internet and social media, organizations need to be more expressive and responsive than they used to. Sitting on sensitive information is often no longer a realistic option. On the other hand, social media offer great potential to organizations to distribute information more efficiently and to promote collaboration in the workplace.

Employees as ambassadors

In recent years many organizations have come to appreciate the importance of a workforce which is both engaged and aligned with their strategy. Inspired by the successes of companies like Zappos and Google in the U.S., Semco in Brazil or others they are investing vast sums in internal communication and people development to turn employees into ambassadors and to instill a strong sense of shared meaning in the organization.

A different playing field

Many organizations are struggling to keep up with all these changes. Or fail to grasp the ultimate consequence: the need to adopt a different mindset in the way they relate with stakeholders. While the playing field has changed profoundly, they continue to play the same game as before. But surely, continued reliance or even increased spending on catchy internal campaigns, spin and unavoidable exposure is not the answer.

Crisis of trust

Research shows that now less than a third of employees in Europe believe that top management has a sincere interest in their well being. Less than half of employees believe in the information received from their senior leaders. Only 40% have trust and confidence in the job being done by their senior leaders. Obviously communication alone cannot be held responsible for these pretty dismal figures, nor is communication the sole solution. But communication is certainly a vital part of the solution.

Back to basics

Time to get back to basics. If I don’t trust you, nothing you say will convince me. If I don’t feel taken seriously I won’t bother to speak my mind. If I receive no praise when I deserve it or get support when I need it, I will disconnect. This is why we need to make sure the groundwork is in the right condition before applying a shiny new layer of paint. Without the proper foundation, it will not hold. Without the right climate accomplishing communication will be difficult. Communication becomes a meaningless ritual.

From corporate communication to corporate conversation

To engage and align their workforce organizations need to make sure the communication climate is right. It is the joint responsibility of top management, team managers, internal communication and HR to nurture trust, openness, participation and supportiveness. Corporate communication in the traditional sense is part of the problem, not the solution. To foster a healthy communication climate corporate communication needs to focus on mutually rewarding relationships and evolve into its next stage: corporate conversation. Let’s start the conversation!

How to nurture a healthy communication climate? Wait for my next blog!

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