Here’s What Happens When Your Message Doesn’t Get to the Back Row

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We all love a good story — so much that when there isn’t one, we’ll create it.

A number of years ago, I was working with an organization that, like most organizations at some point, was going through some cost-cutting exercises. While this company was far from bankruptcy, budgets needed to be tightened in order to meet economic challenges.

A number of cost savings initiatives were launched. The CEO, in conjunction with his communications department, sent out a company-wide email to all 9,000 employees, announcing the measures to be enacted.

 A tale of 2 company-wide emails

While the email was positive and generally straight-to-the-point, the final paragraph was an emotional appeal in which he told employees some of these measures may be painful. He asked that employees be willing to make sacrifices in the short-term in order to be competitive in the future.

Now, while the above wouldn’t typically be seen as unusual, what happened in parallel was amusing, to say the least.

At the same time this email went out, one of the manufacturing plants (its largest, with nearly 2,000 employees), sent out a separate email. Employees received both the corporate email and the local email simultaneously. The plant-wide email read, very simply:

“In approximately 1 hour from now, we will be shutting off the water to all restrooms, and nobody will be allowed to use these facilities. The water will remain off for at least 48 hours while we address the current issues most of you have just learned of.”

(Signed by the management of the plant)

A lesson in how rumors get started

Two communications received at the same time — one warning of cost-cutting measures and personal sacrifice, the other indicating that there would be no use of the facilities for 48 hours.

You can imagine the rumors that flew.

Was the company really in such bad shape that employees would not be allowed to use restroom facilities, just to save a little in water costs? Really?

What the second email neglected to mention was that a water main had broken in the street in front of the facility and the city had been forced to shut off all water to that side of town until they were able to repair the break.

And that’s how rumors get started.

The irrigation effect

The physics principle “nature abhors a vacuum” comes to mind. When information is missing, people won’t simply shrug their shoulders and carry on. They will create their own story.

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The trouble, of course, is that the information may be wrong and the meaning may be harmful. We call this the irrigation effect.

Picture a field of grain or corn. As water enters irrigation furrows, crops thrive. However, where the water in irrigation channels lacks sufficient force to make it to the end of the rows of crops, they will wither and die. In fact, this effect is so evident in drier states that the crops at the beginning of the rows may produce as much as two to three times the harvest reaped from the crops at the end of the rows.

Communication is like water: It tends to stop — or at least become too dispersed to be effective — before it makes it to the end of the rows.

When we administer employee engagement surveys, results often show the irrigation effect is clearly present in most organizations. When asked about organizational communication, the vast majority (more than 90 percent) of executives and senior managers indicate that the level of communication they receive about important events impacting the organization is appropriate.

Some communications don’t make it all the way through

That’s hardly surprising given that they are close to (and even may be) the source. However, as that water flows downhill, just over 78 percent of mid-level managers report having the communication and information they need to be successful, with just 68 percent of line-level employees responding in the same way.

Does this mean that nearly one-third of all employees are creating stories?

While the people in the C-suite may think they are communicating (and perhaps they are), our employee engagement survey responses (several million, by the way), are clearly telling us the water simply isn’t making it to the end of the rows.

Bottom line: It’s tough to be engaged when one doesn’t know what he or she is engaging in.

This was originally published on the DecisionWise blog.

Tracy Maylett is the Chief Executive Officer of DecisionWise, and co-author of the award-winning book, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement and The Employee Experience: How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers, and Drive Results published by Wiley & Sons. He is responsible for guiding the overall strategy of DecisionWise, as well as leading large-scale change efforts for clients throughout the globe. Tracy has a doctorate in Organization Change from Pepperdine University, an M.B.A. from Brigham Young University, and a B.A. in Education from Utah State University. He has also received certification as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR), as well as earning SHRM-SCP credentials.


2 Comments on “Here’s What Happens When Your Message Doesn’t Get to the Back Row

  1. Excellent post. John Kotter wrote about most leaders under-communicating their change vision by a factor of 10X, 100X, or even 1000X and I think that fits for any major communication. The only way you know for sure there is clarity is to ask. Before the communication, to a small group of trusted influencers that area a good representative of the larger group, and after to make sure any concerns and questions are being proactively surfaced. I was actually shocked 68% of line level employees would respond that they have the communication and information they need to be successful. I would have guessed around 25-40%

  2. Great article Tracy and great story.

    Another key difference between the emails which makes a huge difference is how the CEO expressed empathy and concern.

    The plant manager showed neither.

    “All business/just the facts” managers trigger unnecessary resistance and ill will by not communicating empathy and concern when announcing bad news. Conversely, leaders who do express empathy and concern are far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from employees…which makes leading a whole lot easier.

    Also, re: “The physics principle “nature abhors a vacuum”
    comes to mind. When information is missing, people won’t simply shrug
    their shoulders and carry on. They will create their own story.”….

    This is an incredibly important point. Humans are “meaning making creatures”. The need to make sense of what is happening is hard-wired into the human psyche. If we can make sense of something, we feel a measure of control. If the rationale behind a change are not clearly communicated, employees will come up with their own reasons why. They will “create their own story” as you mentioned.
    The more fearful people are and the less of a relationship they have with the bearer of bad news or the initiator of the change, the more likely the meaning they make or the “story they tell themselves” will be a negative one. Thus, once again, the importance of:

    1. Building relationships so you are not seen as “Them”

    2. Expressing concern and empathy.

    3. Clearly communicating “The Why”

    4. Communicating as much as possible “The What’s Next”

    Again, thanks for a great article!

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