Firms often struggle to find effective strategies to communicate with staff. Just what is the best way of dealing with the communication aspects of a cost cutting exercise or a potential merger? Given the likely anxieties, do you keep it quiet or tell people? If you tell people, what do you say, how do you say it and through which channels?
Here are five communication strategies adopted by law firms – you will probably recognise them:
Spray & Pray: Partners shower employees with all kinds of information, hoping that employees will be able to sort out the significant from insignificant. This is a good technique for putting information out there. But it’s poor at ensuring messages are picked up and understood. It’s as if management are saying “We’ve got this wonderful e-mail facility, so we might as well use it. Besides, I’m busy. It’s their job to know what’s going on.”
Tell & Sell: Partners communicate a more limited set of messages, first telling employees about the key issues, then persuading them of the wisdom of their approach. More limited information is put out. But communication is still seen as a top down priority. There is not much exploration of the thoughts, needs or anxieties of others.
Underscore & Explore: Management focuses on developing a few core messages clearly linked to organizational success, while actively listening for potential misunderstandings and unrecognized obstacles. This is a more sophisticated approach with key messages being underlined to ensure they’re fully understood. Also time is given to discussions. Communication is seen as a two way street.
Identify & Reply: Partners identify key employee concerns and then reply to them. Less information is disseminated using this strategy and it’s probably less effective because management is not fully in control of the process. What if staff members don’t ask questions?
Withhold & Uphold: Management withhold information until necessary. Secrecy and control are the implicit values of this strategy. This is how I remember firms used to work. Not much is communicated and little is given away even when asked. The attitude seems to be ‘Whose firm is it anyway?’
Another interesting area to explore is which communication channels are best to use. Law firms use email far too much for communication on important projects. Surely there’s a better way of cascading information down the hierarchy and using team meetings more? Then there’s posters, workshops, the intranet etc.
Finally, management seem to think that once you’ve told people, they know. The truth is that we’re all bombarded with information and need to be told several times before the message sinks in. Or is that just me?
For more insights into the important skills of communication see https://tonyreiss.com/2013/05/07/beware-those-communication-icebergs/
For further information on communication strategies see: Clampitt, DeKoch, & Cashman, “A Strategy for Communicating about Uncertainty”, Academy of Management Executive, Winter 2000, 41- 57