Communication and Engagement in the workplace

I learned the hard way that communication in the workplace is all about in-groups and out-groups. I had just got my first proper job as a management consultant in the greed is good 1980s. I entered the office of a colleague (who had been university friend). Our boss was in there with my friend, and looked up and simply said “F___ Off” James” and my friend, in a supine gesture reiterated the instruction in precisely the same terms. Some friend.

Welcome to the world of those in the know and those who don’t matter. On that day I clearly did not matter. However I came to realise that I mattered a little, because the following Monday I arrived at work to find all the desks rearranged in my office and a memo asking me to see the Boss at 9:30am. I soon discovered that I was the last employee to see the boss. Of the 23 that went before me, 12 were sacked. I was given a motivational talk, that essentially said that I would have been sacked if it had not been for the fact that I was “cheap”!!

One of my senior colleagues clearly did not matter, because soon after my interview the boss was personally removing this guy’s name plate from what was his office door with a screwdriver! The colleague was obliged to see out a notice period sharing the general office with the administrative staff. Needless to say, I took the first opportunity to get out of the company and made a vow to avoid working in secretive and bullying work environments where possible.

Despite the torrent of rhetoric about open communication in the workplace over the last 20 years, my observation is that there are still many organisations where information is withheld from people either to bully or manipulate them. In nearly all of the cases I see, there is no good business case for keeping people in the dark, indeed it inevitably breeds insecurity, suspicion and resentment.

In companies that announce sudden layoffs, the excuse for the surprise element is often some vague reference to the market and competitors or management were worried about staff leaving prematurely. Rarely have such reasons got any merit, and often they simply mask a desire to manipulate staff for managerial advantage, to avoid any discussion or justification, or simply because the management is incompetent.

The problem with the “just get on with your job” approach to employees wanting to know what is going on, is that it is often the very job they are being told to get on with that is about to disappear or alter radically. The questions that many ask when kept in the dark, is what are they up to and why am I not being consulted? These are not the questions that engaged and productive people ask, they are the questions that disengaged and alienated people ask.

Communication difficulties are not restricted to management failing to keep staff informed, equally problematic are cultures where feedback is discouraged or it results in over-reaction, personalisation and vindictive reprisals. Sadly, it is not uncommon for overly sensitive managers to use performance evaluations or disciplinary policies as methods of stymying open and frank communication.

Engagement is probably the buzz word of the moment for employers operating in a tight labour market, yet one of the most effective ways of creating engagement is to take the radical step of talking to staff openly, honestly and regularly. When I get called in to help companies with people issues, one of the first problems I typically encounter is a culture of poor or mis-communication. Employment is a relationship, and like all human relationships they thrive on good communication.