Workplace Communication: Why One Way Is Often the Wrong Way to Go

By Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind

When it comes to organizational communication, “one-way” is very often the easy way to go.

Unfortunately, it’s also very often the wrong way to go. Only by creating channels that operate in two directions — back and forth, to employees and from employees— can leaders harness the flow of energy that emerges when real, human interaction takes place.

Yet there’s more to enabling back-and-forth interaction than merely flipping a switch that toggles from one-way to two-way. Organizational conversation, in fact, amounts to a new way to think about both the media of communication and the people who use those media.

The ins and outs of shifting from monologue to dialogue within a company are various and complex; finding the right way to deploy conversation-friendly technology, in particular, is no simple task.

Here, though, are some pointers on how leaders can carve out an opening within their organization where interactivity can flourish.

Don’t be so remote

Conversation thrives when participants are able to be present in each other’s company — present, ideally, both in mind and in body. Two forces in organizational life today undermine people’s capacity to bring that sense of presence to a meeting or a chat.

First, the globalization of business has made long-distance collaboration a normal part of the working day for more and more employees. Second, the pace of business has taken a toll on the degree of focus that people bring to a conversation; their minds wander even as they remain bodily present.

Among the tools that leaders can use to counter those forces, and thereby to make presence possible, is high-quality videoconferencing capability. A video link, everyone agrees, will never wholly replace the experience of an in-person meeting. But the use of video channels to minimize the feeling of distance, if not the reality of distance, has become a signal feature of organizational conversation at many companies.

At Cisco, the deployment of video technologies such as TelePresence helps CEO John Chambers and other top leaders to connect with employees, notwithstanding the company’s vast size and scope. “It drives up the intimacy on a much broader scale,” says Randy Pond, executive vice president of operations, processes, and systems.

Mike McFall, meanwhile, prizes the way that TelePresence helps him to close deals with customers in physically remote locations. For one deal, he recalls, a TelePresence link allowed him — from the comfort of his office in Northern California — to form a key personal connection with a prospective customer in Melbourne, Australia. “It makes the globe smaller,” says McFall, global sales director for business video.

McFall notes as well that a video connection, unlike a voice-only connection, gives participants in a conference call a clear incentive to be fully present for it. “There are so many modes of communication coming at employees these days,” he says. “So it’s very easy not to pay atten- tion on conference calls — to be doing email or something like that. When you’re on TelePresence, it forces you to pay attention to that conversation. For me, the ability to be ‘in the now’ during a conversation is invaluable.”

Strike a balance

Smart handling of the tools of organizational conversation depends upon a careful analysis of what each tool can and cannot do. It also means weighing those capabilities against the particular needs and work habits that prevail in an organization.

Do people prefer to compare notes in short, frequent bursts of informal communication, or does formal, in-depth conversation suit their work style best? Do they need to retain a record of messages that they send? How much of their interaction involves matters that are highly time-sensitive? Answers to such questions should guide the way that leaders select and manage communication channels.

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At Hoku Corporation, CEO Scott Paul and other leaders have shied away from using many of the latest digital media practices, such as blogging and social networking, to facilitate internal communication. “We haven’t reached a critical mass where we would see value in social media. At this point, it would just be a distraction for most people,” Paul says. Yet he and other members of the Hoku team have embraced one medium that relies on digital technology. “We do use IM [instant messaging] quite a bit internally,” he says.

An IM platform offers a fast, convenient, firewall-protected channel for swapping messages back and forth with colleagues. It also leaves behind a record of each message. For Paul, though, the primary advantages of this medium is that it resembles — and yet improves upon — the age-old practice of poking one’s head inside a colleague’s door to ask a question or to pass along a bit of news.

“If I walk down the hall and knock on somebody’s door, I’m interrupting them. If I send them an IM and they can respond immediately, they will. If they’re in the middle of something, then they’ll respond in a minute or two,” he explains. Email, by contrast, lacks that sense of urgency. “There’s an unwritten law that IM is meant for real-time conversation,” Paul says. “It achieves that fine balance between immediacy and interruption.”

Take the high road

More and more of the day-to-day work of organizational conversation takes place on corporate intranet portals. Employees, meanwhile, are less and less willing to tolerate workaday, second-rate intranet content. Accustomed to the high production value and the attention-grabbing appeal of external Web content, people now expect to see those same qualities when they visit their employer’s internal site. Conversationally savvy leaders, therefore, invest in creating an intranet platform that aims to reach people on a high plane.

The PNC Financial Services Group, for example, in 2009 invested about $1 million in upgrading its internal platform, adding video-on-demand capability and a Facebook-like directory to a site that was already publishing an average of four news stories every weekday. “We want our intranet to provide an experience that would be comparable to something that you might find on a media Web site,” says Donna C. Peterman, executive vice president and chief communications officer.

“Every company today is a media company. I don’t care what it’s pro- ducing; it’s a media company,” PR consultant Gary F. Grates argues. “It has to get people’s attention in an environment where nobody is listening and there’s too much noise.”

Ronna Lichtenberg, a longtime communication professional, echoes that point: “As a communications consumer, I’m used to being catered to. As an employee, I’m no different from that consumer. One-size-fits-all, low-production-value communications aren’t working.”

Equally “nonfunctional now,” she adds, is the assumption that “emotional content is inappropriate for an internal communication.” Leaders, on the contrary, should model their approach to interacting with employees on the heart-touching approach used in many TV commercials. “If you want people to innovate and to come up with creative solutions, you need to inspire them,” Lichtenberg says.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Talk, Inc: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organization by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard Business School faculty, he worked at IBM. Contact him at

Michael Slind is a writer, editor, and communication consultant who served as managing editor and as a senior editor at Fast Company magazine. Contact him at


3 Comments on “Workplace Communication: Why One Way Is Often the Wrong Way to Go

  1. I’m happy to see your lovely work! This is a great hub. I’m such a fan
    of improving conditions in the workplace. Communication is definitely one of the most critical components of having a working team and you’ve explained several methods of maintaining excellent communication.

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