I recently participated in a conference and spotted an underlying theme in the content and discussions about employee communications that surprised me. It was about ‘needing them to do or see something differently’, expressed in ways like this:
- “We have to motivate employees.”
- “We need to get them to care.”
- “Our messages need to reach the millennial generation.”
- “We need to ensure that what we are trying to tell them is getting through.”
With 15 years in organizational communications, these statements sounded all too familiar: ‘top down’ and ‘one-way’. Despite the good intentions, as I sat hearing them in now 2018, it all just felt plain wrong. This undercurrent does not make space for the fact that what people at work see and hear is strategy food for the near future. It doesn’t include them as diverse human beings who have valid views and ideas to contribute.
With all we know today about psychology in the workplace, why is this such a hard habit to break? Frederic Laloux has an explanation for this in his book, ‘Reinventing Organizations‘.
The basics behind his texts are paraphrased below.
As far back as 8,000 BC, ‘Hero Rulers’ responded to external threats by leading men to win battles. This world view was all about impulsive, egocentric power to one heralded individual leader. It’s where mass top down communications all started, based on a fit-for-purpose logic.
What the troops were thinking and feeling was irrelevant – they simply needed to win. Frederic labels this the RED organizations.
Next, the ‘AMBER’ organisation emerged around 500 AD. Here, societies became highly stratified with social classes. They developed replicable processes and ranks that stack up into hierarchical pyramids, such armies and the catholic church. They all have a founding mythology with immutable rules about what is right and wrong. Specific roles and tasks have formed.
Here, the single leader needs sub-leaders to manage different groups with their different tasks. What people think and feel are irrelevant apart from loyalty and obedience. Guilt and shame are used to bring about continued support the beliefs of the wider organization.
Fast forward to 1930 – 1950 AD and it’s all about achievement: think Ford. If you can do things faster / better / cheaper you will make a profit. Leaders define the organization, human resources are aligned like a cog in a machine. Tasks and roles are much more clearly delineated. A plan must be made and carefully implemented to ensure success. This is the ‘ORANGE’ organization and anyone can move up because more leaders are needed. Individuals are rewarded for making special efforts. The relevance of what people are thinking and feeling only goes so far as how they fit in with the status quo. Communications are organized, top down and one-way, designed to motivate people to contribute more of what is required for the potential of a promotion.
Changing the direction of communications
According to Laloux, the GREEN organization started emerging around the turn of the century. It recognises the individual and enables the sharing of skills and ideas between people, largely because doing this is good for everyone.
What employees are thinking and feeling is relevant to organizational performance and sustainability. This is not just so that they can ‘be more engaged’ or benefit from a better ’employee experience’. It’s because their perspectives are a real source of competitive advantage.
Top down persists – an absence of alternatives?
Top down still serves a purpose. People at work have a job description and (should have) a clear brief. What they need to do is align with their colleagues, leaders and stakeholders so that the opportunities can be enabled. There’s no shortage of tools and practices that help people with efficient and effective alignment. Conversation cafe’s, team review workshops, open space brainstorming sessions, dialogue sessions – all of these can deliver great results, depending on the requirements.
Mirror Mirror is a rapid process that has been designed specifically to improve team alignment. Case studies show it delivers multiple benefits evident more than 6 months later:
- the team makes better decisions and takes better actions
- the team has a more open and respectful communications culture
- there is better engagement within the team and with the team leader
- the feedback gain is useful
‘Top Down’ is such a hard habit to break when it’s exclusive.
To a certain extent ‘top down’ communications are valuable and still need to happen. It’s like a diet. You still need to eat. The trouble is, we’re trying to get healthy from just one food type instead of more.
Employees still need the ‘framing’ (they need to understand the requirements and the goals), but they also need an opportunity to align to that (by being given the opportunity to make sense of things in their own ways). Framing AND aligning mean keeping control of the strategy while incorporating the employee voice and encouraging more ownership.
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