Five Trends Raising the Importance of Employee Voice

February 21, 2018
A supertanker ship, sailing on the ocean

Yes, I know. There’s been a surge of interest in internal communication in the last couple of decades. There are now around 50,000 people in the UK alone involved in developing employee communication. Employee attitude surveys are commonplace whereas they hardly existed until the early 1990s. A new vocabulary has emerged encouraging managers to think in terms of ‘internal marketing’, ‘aligning’ employees with Mission and Vision statements, ‘empowering’ them and most recently ‘engaging’ them. But the fact is much of this internal communication directed at employees has been a lightly disguised form of progaganda.

The psychological thinking that lies behind much of this work springs directly from the motivational theories that first began to spread in the 1930s. By the time the modern computer-based era of work began there was a deep pool of ideas from Maslow and his ilk for managers to draw from. Employees were now seen as a source of competitive advantage. ‘Colleagues’ or ‘associates’ were urged to feel ‘passionate’ about their work and ‘go the extra mile’. Unsurprisingly though, senior managers wanted to keep control so alongside all this soft talk came the hard reality of Balanced Score Cards, Key Performance Indicators, regular appraisals and so forth.

5 big supertanker trends steaming towards us

However, the world of work as we know it is about to be transformed. There are five big supertanker trends steaming towards us. None of them are new, in fact they’ve been on the move for some time but they’re speeding up. As they surge forward they push out enormous bow waves that threaten to sink the unwary. Let’s touch briefly on each of these five converging forces. As they come together employee voice will have to be given a more strategic role in every organisation.

The first is information.

A mountain of information is piling up in front of us. Every two years we’re now creating as much information as was gathered since the dawn of civilisation. This mountain of information is being mined by new technologies. Big Data techniques can create Big Brother organisations (the buzzword is ‘dataveillance’) or they can be used to increase connectivity and learning. New information technologies can turn knowledge management into a highly sophisticated process enabling individual employees to gain expertise and experience.

The second is automation.

It’s estimated that around half the job roles currently occupied by humans will be taken over by robots or automated systems in the next decade or two. And it’s not just routine jobs that are at risk, but those of knowledge workers also – except, that is, in fields where creativity and empathy are needed. Some new jobs will be created, but many employees will have to learn to switch into more complex tasks that machines can’t carry out, involving thought, judgement and social skills. And that’s where the third converging force comes in – education.

An educational revolution is underway,

in terms of the sheer numbers of people in higher education – not just here in the UK but across the world. There’s already slippage between what organisations can provide in terms of stimulating jobs and the educated youngsters looking for enjoyable, challenging work. A third of young workers are already overqualified for the work they do. About to get worse, this is a recipe for discontent on a huge scale. Organisations, on the hunt for innovative ways of providing goods and services, will have to cater for a growing demand for lifelong learning at work.

The fourth converging force is mentalisation.

Mentalisation is the process of understanding and altering mental states. Psychology and neuroscience will themselves converge to create new techniques of mind control that can be used for good or harmful purposes. We already have neuromarketing, watch out for neurometrics replacing psychometrics, the increased use of psychotropic drugs to enhance performance, and heavens forbid, the first appearance of neuromanagement techniques.

Our fifth converging force is communication.

How many people really understand how communication works? How many have been trained to communicate effectively? Not many. Yet everyone is becoming interconnected at levels not dreamt of even a decade or so ago. What used to be the chat in the village street has become a worldwide conversation. Billions of people are exposed to a huge variety of personalities, viewpoints and events. Individuals can interact with other people anywhere in the world, at any time. No doubt the future will bring even more options for an unlimited amount of information and contacts. The ‘intelligent internet’ is on its way, which will give individuals the ability to tailor flows of information and communication to their own specific needs and wants.

But here’s the thing. We all think we know how to communicate, but few know how to communicate well. Poor communication in organisations acts as a kind of friction in the corporate machine generating more heat than light. Organisations are full of false beliefs. That’s because communication between people in organisations is composed of thousands of miscommunications, misunderstandings, misperceptions, misinformation, disinformation, failures to inform and deliberate deceptions. Frankly that’s just the way we humans are. Our versions of reality are unique to us. We all struggle to maintain executive control over our own minds. Psychologists like Daniel Kahneman have been quick to point out to us the many faults in our thought processes.

All this really matters because we now live in what some people have called a ‘Heisenberg world’ where uncertainty prevails. In this unpredictable world strategy needs to be fluid not fixed. It will no longer be enough to leave strategic thinking to a few clever people at the top of the organisation. However gifted, they just can’t see everything that’s coming along. They need more pairs of eyes. And that’s where employees come in. Employees need to become full participants in the evolution of strategy. Two broad conditions are necessary for this to happen. One is to provide employees with the information, knowledge and communication skills they need and want. The second is to create the channels, the analytics and the culture of dialogue and conversation. The technologies are emerging to allow this to happen but it’s arguable that many senior managers are too stuck in the command and control mentality to see the benefits of liberating employees’ voices. If they can adapt, then they will be able to conduct what Peter Schwartz has called “a collective enquiry into the deep structure of the business and how it is changing.”

However, if employees’ voices are to be liberated, they need to be articulate. Good communication is dependent on an effective use of language, so let’s talk about that for a moment. Language is the main engine of human progress. About 40,000 years ago the human larynx completed its evolutionary descent into the throat. This allowed the tongue (lingua in Latin) to move around more freely. From that point humans have moved at a lightning pace to construct the world we have today, especially in the past two hundred years or so, and especially in recent times as the pace of change has rapidly accelerated. Yet although all humans have learned to use language, few have learned to use it well. Just look at our contemporary organisational world. It’s still stuffed full of clichés, jargon and management-speak. Clichés can be so thin in meaning that all they’re doing is taking up space. Jargon, sometimes useful as shorthand, too often descends into meaningless babble. Beware those who use jargon incessantly – it often conceals a lack of real thought and perception. We must recognise we are at the beginning of an era during which we will need to equip everyone at work with the skills of interpersonal and public communication. That’s because, strategically, a better use of language is of the highest importance for the organisation’s success. The great philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This is true for organisations as well as individuals. The imaginative richness of an organisation’s thinking is directly related to the language it uses.

Using language clearly and meaningfully, and spreading communication skills throughout the organisation will open up new worlds of possibilities. But there’s another important dimension to language that has been neglected. I believe the time has come for professional communicators to reinstate rhetoric as a force for good – a force for progress. Language in organisations needs to become more expressive. Here we can learn from the past. Classical orators devised speech structures and rhetorical techniques in order to win people over to better ways of living and ruling. And yes, rhetoric fell out of fashion big time. By the 20th century it was becoming a dirty word despite the fact that it was still playing a huge role in law and politics, and has been the principal tool of inspirational thought leaders of all kinds – from Hitler to Martin Luther King.

The case for re-instating rhetoric

1. Rhetoric exists within organisations whether you like the idea or not. We need to take conscious control of it so that it serves three main purposes. The first is to increase understanding through the careful use of metaphors. Of course, organisational language is already chock-full of metaphors, you can’t escape them, especially the dead ones. But have they been chosen wisely? The metaphors you use set the tone. An organisation whose leaders speak in metaphors of war sets up different standards of behaviour from those that use metaphors of nourishment and growth.

2. The second role of rhetoric is to encourage the skills of dialogue and debate. Authoritarian regimes hate the idea of debate. By contrast, progressive organisations take the view that the best decisions emerge from robust debate. Our Heisenberg world needs continuous multi-sided argument to determine the best way forward.

3. The third role of rhetoric is in the realm of emotions. Its aim is to encourage high levels of empathy throughout the workforce. In this sense it has a literary function. It tells powerful stories. It allows employees to use their imagination to feel experiences and see perspectives different from their own.

In conclusion

Let’s sum up. Organisations are facing a number of strategic imperatives directly related to internal communication. There is a need for high levels of interconnectivity to produce more dialogue between different areas of knowledge and expertise; there’s plenty of research showing that a great deal of innovation comes from making unexpected connections across disciplinary boundaries. We must find ways to filter the huge amount of information available to us and create the right kind of access to it for all employees. We should treat employees as being able to deal with complexity – complicated issues shouldn’t be oversimplified. We should harness new technologies in the education field to provide continuous education for employees as a way of opening minds and encouraging new perspectives. We should teach everyone the basics of psychology to make them more aware of the way they think and develop more understanding of others. We must use new techniques to analyse the content of communication flows to provide insights on employees’ states of mind and feed the resulting ideas into top-level decision-making. We should set out to spread communication skills as widely as possible throughout the organisation as a way of reducing the internal friction that gets in the way of high performance.

Above all, we must encourage organisations of all kinds not to think of their employees as human resources but as resourceful humans with voices worth listening to.

Mike Churchman
Mike Churchman Employee Communication

About Mike Churchman.
In his recent book “Principled Persuasion in Employee Communication”, has argued for
a move in organisations away from Motivational Communication to Principled Persuasion. This, he believes, requires a new breed of internal communicators to be trained up. These ‘Principled Persuaders’ will need to be well versed in the areas of psychology, communication theory, ethics and use of language including rhetorical technique. They also need to be plugged into the latest developments in knowledge management as well as data and text analysis. He suggests that experienced Principled Persuaders should have a seat at the top table where they can influence the direction of the organisation’s strategy. These experts in internal communication will use the techniques of persuasion – not manipulation, selling or propaganda, but ethical persuasion that ultimately takes the form of self-persuasion based on convincing arguments.

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