Improving communication in an organization starts with thinking of employees as internal customers. Yes, it’s true they are there to work. But they also need to buy into your messaging, company values, and goals for the future as strongly as your customers.
Scratch that—they need to buy in stronger than your customers. Because they are the ones doing the most work selling the mission, vision, and values to consumers with every touchpoint.
Executives and upper management like the Chief Operations Office or the Director of Marketing may be able to count on one or two hands the number of times a week they actually interact with a customer. One study by Harvard Business Review found the average CEO spends only 3% of their time interacting with customers—that’s less than 2 hours a week.
But employees like sales, customer service, or technical support probably talk to the same number of customers in a half-day, or maybe even just the space of an hour.
Improving internal communication isn’t just about making sure customers are receiving the right information, at the right time, with the right lens. It’s also about making sure the employees at your business are happy to be there, feel supported in success, and are working toward measurable goals they can achieve.
Let’s talk about common causes of communication gaps, and how to improve communication within a team in ways that resonate and drive results.
What is a Communication Gap in an Organization?
A communication gap occurs when the meaning intended by the speaker or writer is not what is understood by the listener or reader. To begin addressing communication gaps in your organization, it’s important to first recognize where they are. Then, you must understand what causes them.
One classic example of a communication gap that impacted employees, customers, and the business as a whole is the Wells Fargo cross-selling scandal. When Wells Fargo incentivized employees to open new accounts by offering financial bonuses, the message from the top down was certainly not “Open new accounts and earn extra money by any means available.” But the program still led to over 2 million unauthorized accounts being opened over a five-year period. This occurred despite internal ethics training, because of a communication gap in what was intended and what was received. Even checks and balances Wells Fargo tried to put in place did not stop the communication gap from impacting the business and its customers.
Communication gaps occur for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, like with the Wells Fargo example, it’s because employees hear one part of the message louder than others and act in their own self-interest. Other times, cultural or emotional barriers may be at work. Here are some of the common barriers that lead to communication gaps:
- Perceptual Barriers: Every individual perceives events with different context, which leads to different understandings and assumptions. The Wells Fargo communication gap was largely a perceptual barrier between the message from company leadership and the perceptions of a group of regional employees.
- Physical Barriers: Geographic distance is a barrier to communication we all became more familiar with in 2020. Whether it’s two people working from home, working in different offices, or even just a closed door, physical barriers prevent open communication when they are not creatively addressed.
- Emotional Barriers: Hidden emotional barriers like a lack of trust in management, being afraid of retribution from peers and colleagues, or anxiety around asking questions can all cause communication gaps.
- Language Barriers: This doesn’t just apply to companies where employees speak literal different languages, but also across departments where different jargon or terminology are in use. If everyone at the company doesn’t share the same operational definition of a concept, that will lead to a gap in communication.
- Cultural Barriers: Whether it’s a culture difference between two cities, states, or nations, behavioral norms are different from place to place. Everything from body language to how needs are expressed will be impacted by cultural differences, and those differences can become barriers when they are not examined with empathy.
- Interpersonal Barriers: The relationships between two individuals on a team can lead to communication gaps not only between them, but also among their peers in the workplace. Sometimes it’s an individual’s confidence and relationship with themselves that can even be the issue.
Identifying the barriers that are causing communication gaps at your organization is the first step to solving the problem.
How to Overcome a Communication Gap in an Organization
Overcoming a communication gap in an organization requires deciding how you will measure the improvements in communication. Will employees be expected to check in on Slack a certain time each day as part of accountability in a new hybrid/remote work environment? Will they respond to surveys to help define direction for professional development? Will you monitor their customer interactions and measure how quality improves?
The answer might be all the above. But what’s important to consider is that you can’t just demand communication improve without establishing a tangible way those improvements will be measured. It’s equally important to make sure employees and other stakeholders share your understanding of these metrics.
When it comes to any organizational change, it’s best to proceed in what we call “two-degree shifts.” You might ultimately want team leaders to share and celebrate wins across departments each week, to develop better communication throughout the company and highlight top performers. But if they aren’t sharing wins at all right now, that’s a big change to ask for all at once. Plus, the value that is intended is unlikely to manifest, because leaders will feel pressured to choose wins when they aren’t as practiced at choosing high-impact reasons to celebrate.
So, start with two-degree shifts, and ask for one email a month. Team leads will see the wins chosen by others and get inspired about what to highlight in their own departments. Slowly increase the required number of emails, and see if the quality of communication rises to match. Measure who is meeting or exceeding the goals, and celebrate those winners, providing positive reinforcement to encourage the new desired behavior. Soon, team leads won’t remember life before they were always looking for wins to celebrate, because the change will have taken root.
While we’re talking about email specifically, there’s another point to remember: when it comes to communication tools, less can often be more. 50% of employees report added stress because of the current communication tools in use at their workplace, and 35% add that their company does not provide guidance or training on when to use communication tools. Coaching team leads on when to send emails, and to whom, is just as important as telling them what to communicate in the above example.
Overall, one in three employees are on the verge of quitting due to poor communication in their work environment.
What this ultimately leads to isn’t just high employee turnover, but high customer turnover as well. If employees don’t have the information and support which they need to do their jobs, they simply won’t be able to do them. And that in turn will send customers looking for a better experience among your competitors.
Fun Ways to Improve Communication in the Workplace
Improving communication in the workplace doesn’t have to mean a technology tool or collaboration software. In fact, depending on the causes of your communication gaps, it might be better to address communication issues before turning to technology. Here are a few fun, easy ways to improve internal communication and engage in team building at the same time.
- Integrate Video, Especially for Essential Information: Melcrum reports that 93% of internal communication professionals believe video has become essential. Video can take the place of many other forms of communication, from memos to trainings and meetings. The video is always there to refer back to from any device. Lastly, video represents an opportunity to have a lot more fun with communication and control the tone. You can even interview employees in a web series to make sure the communication is going both ways, not just from the top down.
- Make Communication a Game: It’s important to engage employees in information, not simply announce it to them. One way to do this is to gamify their understanding of what has been shared. Our own Managing Director at Alignmint Growth Strategies, Ali Cudby, once worked with a retail client who realized her employees didn’t have enough product knowledge to keep customers satisfied. With new products coming into the location daily, this was understandable! So, the client created a daily game where employees received points for new product knowledge. This not only helped employees retain information but made them feel more connected to their workplace, especially since the owner played, too. In the end, month-over-month sales increased right along with improvements in manager feedback.
- Show Gratitude for Growth: As your strategies and two-degree shifts manifest success, celebrating that with the team might be the most fun of all. Different celebration strategies will resonate in diverse company cultures and appeal to distinct personality types among employees. Some might appreciate a catered lunch and time to socialize, while others will prefer a shoutout in the newsletter or a badge for their employee profile on the intranet. Whatever ways you celebrate, remember to increase the reward with the significance of the achievement.
Strategies for Improving Organizational Communication are One of Our Specialties
Improving internal communication is an art as much as a science. The science is the processes, metrics, and proven strategies that Alignmint Growth Strategies brings to the table. Our proven MINT Method aligns your team and inspires your customers. The art is in understanding how your unique company culture requires a tailored approach to achieve explosive growth.If you want to align your team, grow customer loyalty, and uncover hidden revenue, you’ve found the right partners. Let’s talk soon about how we can help you align your organization for the next phase of achievement.