Inclusion draws upon the two-way nature of real human conversation. Yet inclusive communication goes a crucial step further: It extends the practice of back-and-forth interaction in a way that entitles people to give as well as take—to provide their own ideas, and not simply to parry the ideas offered by others. Within an organization, the practice of inclusion enables employees not just to interact with managers and colleagues, but also to serve as frontline content providers. In recent years, as that practice has taken hold at many companies, the overall structure of how organizations develop content has undergone a noticeable shift.
Corporate communication professionals, working with other leaders, used to create all or most of the content through which an organization told its story—to internal and external audiences alike. Those professionals developed static messages and built carefully structured campaigns around those messages. By and large, they viewed communication as a control function, and they kept a tight rein over what people wrote or said on any of a company’s official channels. When employees read a company newsletter, or when they listened to speakers at a company event, they became members of an essentially passive audience. What’s more, because employees were consumers rather than producers of organizational content, the scope of employee communication remained fairly narrow, and so did the purpose of such communication. That purpose, for the most part, was to deliver information and instruction that would help employees to thrive in their functional role.
More recently, a different approach to content development has come to the fore. The old emphasis on producing carefully framed messages has given way to a more ﬂuid and variegated style of communication, and the campaign mentality has yielded to a preference for collaboration. Most important, employees are becoming an integral player in that collaborative enterprise. "Communication today is really about establishing and maintaining a relationship with employees, rather than top-down command and control," says Nora Denzel of Intuit Software. "It’s about participation and contribution as much as it is about information sharing." Leaders, in other words, have come to take the process of communication as seriously as they do its product. More and more of them recognize that including employees in that process sends its own kind of message, not least to employees themselves. The term employee communication has thus acquired a provocative new meaning. Where it once referred primarily to communication aimed at employees, it now encompasses communication performed by employees.
A give-and-take model of communicating with employees, as we’ll see, can follow a variety of patterns. It can focus on internal matters, or it can involve aspects of a company’s external communication. It can result in the creation of a standard media product (an article, a photograph, a video clip), or it can exhibit the dynamic and spontaneous character of spoken conversation. The common denominator in all such practices is that employees don’t rely on authorized communicators to say what needs to be said, or to tell them what they need to know.
- Let Them Build It
Conversational inclusion starts, quite simply, with a resolve to include employees in the real, nitty-gritty work of gathering and sharing company information. It means drawing them over to the active, constructive side of the communication process. To invert a popular movie phrase: If you let them build it, they will come. And they will come with a higher level of engagement than they’re likely to have if top leaders and professional communicators insist on doing all of the work for them.
- Open Up the Floor
Seen from one angle, conversational inclusion is a matter of conversational expansion—expansion of the range and number of people who contribute to organizational messaging, and expansion of the range and number of ideas that are available to drive that messaging. Smart leaders, accordingly, open up institutional space where people from all parts of a company can participate in creating and telling the company story. In that space, employees should be able to contribute to both message development and message delivery. Bob Pickard, drawing on his expertise as a PR executive, offers a term to describe this model: "The whole phenomenon of cocreation is the most important change in what’s going on right now. You get the best, most authentic communication if you cocreate your messaging by consulting with employees and by engaging them in a dialogue." By fostering what amounts to an open-source approach to content generation, leaders can inspire "employees to proselytize, to ‘own’ what they talk about, to advocate enthusiastically for their company," Pickard argues.
- Throw an Inside Pitch
Companies deploy armies of salespeople and spend millions of precious marketing dollars to get the word out about their products. No doubt, most of that effort and expense is unavoidable. But inclusive leaders know that bringing non-sales employees into the sales process can offer a low-cost, high-impact way to generate interest in their company’s latest offering. Word of mouth, ideally, starts at home.
- Shine a Light
Allowing employees to step up and speak is a natural corollary of encouraging leaders to step back and listen. Where a spirit of conversational inclusion prevails, moreover, employees are frequently able to speak out in situations that give them high visibility: They occupy center stage, as it were, while the top executives who usually perform in that spot retreat to the wings. By conferring attention on people who typically work in the organizational shadows, leaders enable employees to gain a higher proﬁle inside (and, in some cases, outside) their company.
- Give It Up
For company executives, letting employees join the fray of organizational conversation means letting go—letting go of the eminently understandable impulse to monitor and restrict what people say on company-sponsored communication channels. The advent of social media raises a particular challenge for leaders: Should they seek to impose rules on a medium that appears to be as unruly as it is powerful? But there, too, inclusive leadership requires a willingness to give up the need for control, together with a faith in employees’ ability to control themselves.
Conversational inclusion fosters employee passion. Encouraging people at all levels of an organization to write blog posts about their work or to share snapshots of life at their company, for example, spurs them to care about both their work and their company with a renewed sense of intensity. Passion of that kind, in turn, helps fuel greater innovation, faster execution, and other ingredients of improved organizational performance. "The goal is to have engaged employees," says Larry Solomon, of AT&T. "If you’re an engaged employee, you’re going to score high on your commitment to customers, your loyalty to the company, your overall happiness as an employee. You’re going to stick around, and you’re going to act as an ambassador for the company when you’re talking to your friends and family. And one of the key factors in having an engaged workforce is creating an environment where people feel like they’re being listened to."
Leaders at AT&T and elsewhere now listen to employees in part because those employees now have something to say—not just on their own behalf, but also on behalf of their organization.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind. Copyright 2012 all rights reserved.
[Image: Flickr user fluffisch]