"No one here talks to each other." It is a common phrase usually dressed up as feedback. Everyone from middle management on up has probably heard these exact words at least once--and maybe even in the last 24 hours. As a manager, I know I did. And as a communications consultant, hearing these words stung more than just a little.

Communications--and specifically corporate communications--are tricky. When you're on the receiving end, it's easy to spot gaps because you're on the frontlines and witness breakdowns in collaboration and momentum. When you're counted on to deliver information, it's easy to default to a protective, "need to know" position to help manage the risk of exposing sensitive material.

Executives (ideally with the advice and support of their communications teams) try to strike a balance between sharing useful information with those who need to know and controlling the reaction to that information. In fact, these people spend a lot of time determining what reaction they want to elicit and what reaction they most want to avoid. But excuses aside, how do you get people to stop saying that you're not communicating? Assuming you have ruled out telling them to shut up and get back to work (not good for team morale!), what can you do?

  1. Know that avoiding known issues erodes confidence. Sometimes executives avoid topics that are still evolving. This happens most often when they're not yet sure what they're going to do--let alone what they're going to tell people. Avoiding communications when everyone knows something is going erodes confidence in the leadership and fuels speculation and misinformation.
  2. Know that no amount of communication solves an underlying trust issue. You can't communicate your way out of flawed relationship with employees. Trust issues result from the repeated mismatch of words and actions. Actually, it doesn't have to even happen twice if the issue was big enough. Rebuilding trust starts with getting a deep understanding of the concerns, engaging directly with staff on how they'd like to see the problem solved today and for the future, then taking an informed step forward.
  3. Know that, at times, the need for information seems insatiable. At times, leaders get fed up with the communication process because it feels like a never-ending cycle (it is!) Instead of seeing communication as a chore and letting resentment against those seeking information build, try to view the level of interest as a positive sign of employee engagement. Also know that ignoring employees asking for more information is risky and can lead to a breakdown in trust (see #1 and 2). If you're getting repeated requests for either the same information or more detail that what you've provided, take a look at your messages and platforms. Alison Davis offers some great tips on gauging effectiveness here. What are people reading? What's sticking? What needs to be revamped so that it proactively answers questions instead of creating more demand?
  4. Know that the source matters a lot. Many employees would strongly prefer to receive information straight from their boss. If staff read a blast communication, they will read on two levels: what is the communication saying and what does it mean for me? The truth is that we all want the news, trends, decisions, and gossip fresh and close to the source--think farmer's market versus superstore. No amount of group e-mail messages, newsletters, all-employee meetings or conference calls will do. A tiered strategy might be a better option. Considering sharing the core message with your direct reports with instructions for them to do the same with their teams, and on down the line. Promise all involved to check in with staff at multiple levels to gauge efficiency and accuracy. In fact, great leaders use a number of tactics- check out this collection of 10 from Travis Bradberry.
  5. Know that building information "push" and "pull" into your corporate culture pays off. Organizations with highly effective communications teams often are at the greatest risk for breakdowns. Over time, staff grow to expect messages to come from the top down. Always. They forget that we all bear some responsibility for informing ourselves. To help cultivate this push and pull dynamic, make sure that messages that don't warrant organization-wide distribution (either because of their priority or lack of urgency) are centrally posted for anyone to browse and "pull" information of interest.

Improving communications--and shutting down the negative feedback--can yield a tremendous return of investment in employee morale and productivity.