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How You Communicate with Employees Is a Key Factor In Your Success
Episode 207th December 2021 • Copper State of Mind: public relations, media, and marketing in Arizona • HMA Public Relations | PHX.fm
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How does your organization define success? Better than average profits? Support of local nonprofits? Great customer feedback?

The best way to achieve any of these or other ways you measure success is to ensure your employees are as committed to the success of your organization as you and the other leaders are.

No one will be as strong of a brand advocate as the people that work for you. So how do you cultivate that?

Since employees play a critical role in an organization’s success, effective internal communication is key. It is extremely important to measure your communication effectiveness and especially the link between communication initiatives and business results.

Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "How Your Employees Lead to Your Success"

If you enjoyed this episode, please follow the Copper State of Mind podcast in your favorite app. We publish a new episode every other Tuesday. Just pick your preferred podcast player from this link and follow the show: https://www.copperstateofmind.show/listen

Additional Resources

Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.

Transcripts

Adrian McIntyre:

Many employers and business leaders pride themselves on putting people first. But when we look at the actual practices within their company, their nonprofit, their small business, we don't see a lot of mechanisms for actually managing conversations around the employee's success, around the employee's fulfillment, satisfaction, et cetera. We're here to talk about the ways in which internal communications and your employees' success are a critical factor in your business success. Joining me as always is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what's on your mind?

Abbie Fink:

As we're wrapping up the year here and the conversations are starting to talk about year-end evaluations and setting up budgets for next year, and we've talked a few episodes back about our employees as our brand advocate and how amazing it is to engage your employees. But what we really need to also be talking about is how our internal teams really do impact the success of our business and that we have to pay as much attention to our internal customer, i.e. our employees, as we do to our external customers that we are trying to create our communications programs for, and that internal audience is so critically important to our success and that we should really be treating them exactly the same way as we treat our external customers in terms of engagement and asking for feedback and such. And what we do with that information is really then what will eventually translate itself out to our external audiences.

Adrian McIntyre:

Abbie, you and I are professional communicators. We get paid to take messages and amplify them in various ways, very differently your business and my business, but we are in the realm of communication. And we have talked over the course of this podcast series on important subjects like listening as the primary skill and communication. We've talked about the ways in which we should get organized internally around diversity, equity, inclusion, things of that nature. We've talked about having, as you mentioned, employees become brand advocates and so on. But really there's something here that I think is challenging, even for those of us who would pride ourselves on our communications acumen, to reach into the Scrabble dictionary for a big word here. And that is sometimes the truth hurts and many business leaders, I think understandably avoid getting feedback from employees because they intuitively know they don't really want to hear the answer to the question, how do you like it here? And are we doing a good job for you? What are your thoughts on that?

Abbie Fink:

Well, and carry that just a little bit further, even by simply asking the question, oftentimes sets up the response to parrot back what we think our bosses want to hear. We may not give our employees the opportunity to feel that they can be honest, that there might be some ramifications for telling us things that we don't want to hear. And so you're right, as an office full of professional communicators we just make assumptions that we talk, and we communicate, and we share, and we know, and that's not always the key case. And certainly amongst the organizations that we work with more often than not the vast majority of the individuals we're talking to are not professional communicators. Their jobs are different, their responsibilities are different. And so we will often talk about, let's do a customer survey, let's send out and get some feedback, let's ask for testimonials, let's engage on social media, find out what our customers are thinking about, but do we apply those same techniques internally and create a place for our staff to feel comfortable and safe and allow the honest dialogue to happen. And really the benefits of doing that are astronomical. I mean, your business is successful as the business owner, because you have surrounded yourself with individuals that are committed to your mission. I mean, let's just make the assumption that I'm the business owner, and I have created a team of people that truly believe in what we are doing as a business. But if I asked them, could I be doing something different? If we had another line of business, what might that be? If budgets were no issue, what could we be doing? Kind of that pie sky thinking. And then do we take that information and do something with it, because even if you ask the question and you do nothing with it, you've more or less didn't need to have asked the question. But the degree to which we engage our employees in this communication and gather that feedback, and then use it to measure against those things that we consider success measures, so what are we looking at as a business that says we're successful? Are we getting new business, have we increased our sales by X percent? Have we got ... did better in 2021 than we did in 2020 or into 2019? Are we projected to do better in '22 than we did this year? How do we measure it? Are we doing community outreach? And how many organizations have we impacted? Whatever it is, whatever you've set it up. Do those success measures, those things that we say we were successful this year, align with the same things that your employees are saying are success measures for them? And if it doesn't, you will not be successful. I mean, it stands to reason there is a conflict there that doesn't allow it to happen.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think this is such an important conversation because measurement in communication is already a bit of a thorny problem. I mean, you have to agree first of all on what are the measures that we want to be held accountable to. For example, in a media relations campaign or an influencer campaign or a contributed content campaign, or some other marketing campaign. Certainly with advertising, it's a little easier because you can track, and most digital advertising now is directly trackable. But then you start to get into measures that are hard to measure, or if they can be measured, the causal relationship between those results and business results is sometimes harder to draw a straight line between. Certainly brand awareness measures are incredibly valuable to a business, but it's hard to say that those impressions or that reach turned into this revenue. I mean, it can be done sometimes, but not always. When it comes to internal communication, again, identifying the right measures and then figuring out the relationship between success in one area, like the business growing, and success in another area, like people's fulfillment, satisfaction, sense of accomplishment. You certainly don't want to end up in a situation where the business results are high, but people's internal measures are very low. That's not going to be a sustainable situation.

Abbie Fink:

Right. Well, and as you said, measurement is a difficult thing in the public relations industry. And in my years of working in the business, how we measure, what we measure, has changed. And the way that we do it has changed. And I will venture to guess it will continue to do so. I mean, as the industry itself has more tools at our disposal, we have to think differently about how we're measuring it. But the industry as a whole technically looks at the same kinds of things whether we're talking about it internally or externally. So what are we putting out in the universe, what is our outputs? What is the information that we're trying to discuss? And is it the products that we're offering or whatever, is it an internal-external, but what are the out-takes? What are people retaining from this information that we're putting out there? What is the action that they're taking as a result of hearing this information? And then what does those two things do organizationally in impacting our business? And so when you can think about that, then it's these things that are more difficult to put a scale around. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much information did you retain? Well, I mean, I can spit back the top 10 things that I'm supposed to be known for, but what did I do with that information? And how relevant is the information that I'm sharing, and is it really being received by my team the way I intended it to be, or is it just a directive on high? If there's no buy-in from our teams, it's just a statement of fact. And what are we doing to make sure that we get from point A to point B and we can see the change, the change behavior that we want to see, and that becomes a positive impact on our business. Now, every business owner wants to be successful. They go into it, they want to make money, they want to profit, they want to ensure that they have a good workplace environment, culturally appropriate, have good employees that speak well of them and participate in the organization. But to truly create an internal communication strategy and one that focuses 100% on that internal audience from the most entry-level person on your team to the senior-most person on your team. Where are these outcomes and this organizational impact? What does it mean at each level? And this is one of those things that is not a two-hour brainstorming session, you know, at the beginning of the year when we say, "Okay, we've got our internal communications plan, everybody go off and do their thing." This is a regular ongoing check-in conversation across the board and in various different ways, whether you do focus groups or whether you have the comment box. I remember when I first started working in retail, there was a legitimate box that sat on the boss's desk and you could drop your thoughts into the box, and hopefully, they were taking it and listening to it, doing something about it. But however you gather the information, taking it and doing something with it and giving that feedback to the team, that "I heard from a percentage of our employees that this needs to happen, and this is how we're going to address it," goes such a long way to continuing to encourage the feedback and that input. I mean, not that I want to go off in that tangent on social media, but when we advise clients and we say, "If you get somebody that makes comments and you engage with them, oftentimes it's just they want to be heard." Same thing applies internally as well. If you ask my opinion and I give it to you, I want it to be heard. Doesn't mean you have to take action on what I've said, not everything that you get will be appropriate, but the idea that you are allowing that space for the conversation to take place and that it is under consideration with other things and put it back into the workplace, "This is what we heard, and this is what we're doing." Goes such a long way for improving process, improving productivity, improving employee morale, and all of those things ultimately impact your bottom line.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think, like with most things, the courage and conviction of the leader really does set the tone for the conversations that happen internally and externally. And that doesn't have to look any particular way. It's a mistake to think that courage and conviction automatically means charismatic extroverts who can speak eloquently on a subject. It could be a very quiet kind of courage and a very quiet kind of leadership and still be very effective. I mean, I have the luxury of not having to be an employee. I'm not a very good employee anyway. But I have worked in organizations where someone simply took the time to listen, and it changes the experience that I have versus other organizations where you feel like you're beating your head against while trying to share something you think is important, and since it's not being received, eventually you just stop. I mean, there's a learned helplessness that happens when people get very clear feedback that their opinion is not actually going to be taken seriously. So again, putting this all together in a way that is a meaningful and impactful communication program internally is just as challenging as it is sometimes to design the external ones. And the stakes are higher because, let's be honest, in a marketing campaign, you gave the example of testimonials or case studies, things like that. You can cherry-pick the best results and use those to put on the website or to share with potential clients. When you're working with your internal people, you really don't have that option. If you've asked for their opinion, they now know that you have heard them, and you need to take all of it into account. Don't you think?

Abbie Fink:

You do, and as you were talking, I keep thinking about how often the only time that you ask for feedback or give feedback is the annual review. The, "Oh, it's once a year, we're going to give the annual reviews, we're going to do a 360" or whatever format you use. And you ask all the questions, and you give them the chance, and they give you all the answers. And you check the box that we've done the review, and we're giving our raises and whatever that is, and that's it. Then it goes in the file, and we did what we said we were going to do, and we go on. And so that culture of asking for feedback--and regularly asking for it--has to start, it has to start from the top but it has to start from the beginning. I mean, it has got to be part of what you create for your organization. And I don't think it has to fall into a super complicated manner. It can be a town hall format, or focus groups, or as I said, the comment box, or lunch with the boss, or get up from behind your desk and walk around and just talk to your team. I can remember when I first started working at HMA Public Relations and Scott came into my office, and I was just ready for something bad to happen. "Why is the boss in my office?" And it simply was just to chat. There really wasn't an agenda. And I must have had that kind of look on my face that I'm waiting for the shoe to drop. He said, "No really, I just wanted to see how you're doing and what's for lunch." And off he went. And I thought, you know what, that's the culture I want to create and I want to make sure that that happens. And now in our online virtual world that we're operating in, you can still have the walk around philosophy, you can create time, and intentional time, to talk with your teams. And whether you do that through any number of the online portals, or the thing called the telephone, where you actually pick up and actually speak to people over the little device that we now carry with us everywhere we go. There's a lot of way to be able to get that feedback and share information. And if the culture provides for that opportunity, and your employees and your members of your executive leadership have this comfort level and an interaction, and that the conversations are such that we feel safe to do them they can be open and honest and transparent. I hear the information in an open way, and you feel comfortable in providing that feedback. The culture of the whole organization starts to change and you start to see the collaboration with teams amongst your employees is changing. They feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with each other. The hierarchy shifts a little bit, and it's not boss to employee, but colleague to colleague. And it is safe to assume when those things start to change, the commitment back to the organization is stronger, the involvement in the success of the business is stronger because you can start to see that what I am doing is impacting that business. My little corner of this world is making a difference in the success, and that what I can contribute is meaningful, and important, and respected. And that I then am committed to improving and getting better and bringing ideas and being an active and an engaged member of the organization no matter what role I play within that organization.

Adrian McIntyre:

You mentioned something really critical, and let's end with a discussion of this. You said when we feel safe to share our perspectives and even deeper to share ourselves, and who we really are, not feel like we have to pretend to be a certain way at work because there would be consequences if people found out who we really are. But it goes beyond that to feeling like it is a safe environment to dissent. Like it is a safe environment to question or challenge, obviously in a constructive way. But let's talk about that. I mean, there's studies as tall as this building that show that psychological safety at work is the foundational issue that has to be created before collaboration, innovation, high performance, and all these other things in a practical way, using communication as the medium for this, how do you create, that environment of psychological safety and what are some of the things that undermine it that need to be managed and avoided?

Abbie Fink:

This is an ever-growing challenge for organizations and even those that have successfully done it need to continue to evaluate it because there are always going to be an off day. There's always going to be something that just, you are absolutely positive that you are right and you do not want to hear the dissension, but you need to, and you mentioned the listening skills, but there's that active listening and there's the facial expressions and the way that our body language, that all dictate how we're actually hearing the information that we're doing it. But I think probably the best advice on how to create it is it's more than just saying, "I want your feedback, and there will be no retribution for the information that you're sharing. I want you to be open and honest about whatever you're feeling." I mean, that is the outward statement. Our actions then are really what ensures that that happens. We all talk about having an open-door policy, but do you really? If the entry-level employee comes to your door Mr. President, Madam president, do you really allow them in to sit down and express their concerns when you are busy, you've got a stockholder conversation, you're ready for a business trip, whatever it is. Do you really carve out that time for that person? And do you say hello to them when you see them in the hall? And if you're a big company, you may not know everyone's name, but do you take the time to get to know what's happening in your workplace? And that sense of I belong and I'm meaningful, and I feel comfortable, and I had the chance to share with my supervisor or my supervisors' supervisor, this amazing idea that I had, and you know what, although they didn't do it, I was recognized for having brought that idea to the table. It's a very powerful feeling. We know what that feels like. We all know what acknowledgement feels like and how we feel empowered when someone nods their head and says hello, or remembers your name, or wishes you a happy birthday, or whatever it is. We all just appreciate the way that feels. And so by creating that, and safety in offering up the opportunity for the conversation, but doing something with that information and really living that as part of your culture, and that has to be across the board. So colleague to colleague has to be able to do that, supervisor to employee, employee to supervisor, supervisor to supervisor, wherever it is, that sense of belonging and that sense of commitment needs to be ingrained. And I think what starts to happen is you know right away when you have members of your team that aren't at that place because everyone around them starts to notice it. So if you have created that sense, and there are people in your organization that aren't as comfortable with it or think that there's a hierarchy and it shouldn't be, they start to be the ones that have to be moved away from the organization because they are detrimental to the success of what you're doing. That office drama becomes more than what you want to put up with. And you've created the culture that that naturally just happens. And you say it's not a good fit anymore.

Adrian McIntyre:

And this is where that courage comes into play because I think what a lot of business leaders really have to confront is the fact that they are enabling an environment where people do feel left out, where people do feel they can't speak up because the person who's creating that blockage to others is one of their star performers. And so what we don't realize, we talked about this being an internal communication problem, we should talk about the fact, or we should at least acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of non-verbal communication that is also happening here. So the fact that Sally, Jimmy, or Susan, doesn't play nicely with the other kids, but continues to do whatever they do because they bring in results is something that other people notice and that is a communication. So again, these are tough situations to navigate sometimes because you have to ask yourself, am I really as committed to what I say I'm committed to, and if so, do my actions show that? Are my actions aligned with what I am saying? And look, we all know we could turn this into bumper stickers and walk the walk, talk to talk, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, there's really tough decisions to make, environments to navigate. If you really are going to put your employees at the center of your success, then their success becomes your problem and figuring out what to do about it becomes what leadership is.

Abbie Fink:

Right, and be willing to accept the fact that difficult conversations have to happen, and outcomes that you believe are where you're headed, may not be the direction it really needs to go. And that those kinds of actions organizationally when you take action will have a much stronger impact and a much more long term positive impact when you can make those decisions and stand by your philosophies. And you will see the others rise to the occasion because again, your actions are demonstrating what your words have said. And they will see that what they bring to the table, and what they are able to do is relevant and is appreciated and respected. And that from the top of the organization, all the way through everyone's opinion is important and everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the success, and we measure our success based on those kinds of outcomes that our employees are sharing with us. And it's not always, or only about what the external customer base is telling us, it is linked back directly to what our internal teams are telling us.