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Breaking the champagne tower of communication

Slow, cascading approaches to communication no longer work, it’s time to shift to a more connected and faster pace.

Remember when corporate communication was tightly controlled with a top-down cascading approach, not too dissimilar to a champagne tower? You know the set-up – as the champagne filled the top glasses, it would spill over to the next level underneath. Eventually, in the glasses at the bottom of the tower, you’d be lucky if you got a few dregs to enjoy. Very rarely would you end up with a full glass like the levels above you.

Back then, communication involved a certain hierarchy. However, nowadays this slow, cascading approach has shifted to a more connected, faster one.

Employees want to feel connected. We want to be able to talk to people in the organisation regardless of hierarchy – with our team, our managers and even the CEO.

We want to know that each of us has a voice that is heard and valued. Flattening workplace hierarchies has been a trend for several years. The argument for such a radical break from tradition is that so-called flat workplaces are more likely to spark collaborations and creative innovations.

Zappos have led the way in this area with their ‘holacracy’ initiative, a decentralised self-organisational structure that has no managers, so as to limit bureaucracy and increase productivity and adaptability.

Yet it’s not just employees who have different expectations when it comes to communication and connection; it is also our customers.

Once upon a time, we would wait until we had all the answers before we communicated what was going on (especially externally), but now the immediacy and urgency of social media means we can no longer afford to wait. Customers will be on Twitter to find out what is happening in real time.

When it comes to what and when to communicate, the metric for risk needs to change if we want to satisfy our employees’ and customers’ need for connection and timely communication.

In the past, companies would be concerned about sharing too much information, when now they should be concerned about sharing too little.

Senior leaders, in particular, need to share what’s going on in their business, and they need to be more accessible. Many CEOs now provide their direct email to employees and customers in case they need to contact them with issues.

We saw other examples of this increased connection and accessibility during the royal commission into the Australian finance industry, with two high-profile CEOs in particular adopting this communication strategy. Andrew Thorburn, former CEO of NAB and Shayne Elliott of ANZ frequently recorded videos of them visiting customers and employees, and posted these directly onto social media channels such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

In the past, leaders would not want to be seen as too familiar, but now the risk is being seen as elitist, or not relatable or approachable.

Larger organisations are now talking about the need for their leaders to be ‘more human’, to be relaxed and natural when connecting with customers and employees, and to show vulnerability.

The time of companies taking days or even hours to deliberate what should or shouldn’t be communicated is over. They need to be timelier with their communication. Silence is dangerous. Customers and employees expect to know what is going on and they expect to know now.

Employees and customers respond to transparent and timely communication, as opposed to contrived and controlled communication. Done authentically these kinds of interactions can build a real connection with employees and customers alike.

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