What A Botched Cobb Salad Teaches About Internal Communications

Last year I went to a conference at a hotel I won't mention. With just 20 minutes for lunch, I opted for the hotel restaurant, ordered a Cobb salad -- no meat, extra cheese -- and explained I was pressed for time. A few minutes later, I saw a salad emerge from the kitchen and then retreat. Then the same thing happened a second time. Time was running out, so I asked the waiter what was going on. He'd said he told the kitchen, "no meat," but they didn't listen. Finally, the salad emerged without meat, but also without cheese. After I asked for a manager to explain that there was a communications issue, her response was to comp my still unsatisfactory meal.

Let's say, conservatively that this kind of misunderstanding -- and comped meal -- happens three times a day. Over the course of the year, that could cost the hotel roughly $17,472 in hard food costs, labor and lost productivity. What can't be calculated are the intangible costs of poor morale among servers and kitchen staff, not to mention the consequences of an unhappy customer who shares this story with others. And my bet is that this communications challenge doesn't just occur in one department, but in other parts of the company as well.

To engage effectively with those who are most critical to your success, your team has to understand why your enterprise matters and how important it is to communicate that value in everything they do. Want empirical evidence? A Towers Watson study on Change and Communication ROI finds that companies that communicate a differentiated employee value proposition -- one tied to rewards and lined up with business strategy -- are twice as likely to report better financial performance.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating or enhancing an internal communications effort:

Buy-in From the Top
C-Suite leadership must be committed to communication. They must be visible, accessible, and willing to engage in an ongoing conversation with their employees. Your leadership's willingness and openness to communicate have a dramatic effect on morale and employee retention and attraction. And fostering the best talent is key to achieving organizational goals.

Understand Employees' Communication Needs
Never assume you know what your employees are thinking. Conduct surveys of attitudes, perceptions and the best way for them to get information. Ask what kinds of information they need from senior leadership and their direct supervisors. And then provide it. Make it a point to communicate regularly about what your firm or organization is doing internally, about the external events or trends that are shaping the enterprise, and how you envision a direction for the future.

Use clear and simple language.
Don't hide your message behind jargon and three syllable words when plain talk will do. Language that is confusing or overly complex leads to misunderstandings.

Get the point across quickly.
Be clear yourself about what it is you are trying to communicate and why. And then communicate it concisely to your team.

Train, Train, Train
Don't just tell people to communicate -- show them how to do it. Offer talking points and other materials to support good communication.

Don't Forget Context
As you are sharing information with employees, let them understand decisions and actions within the larger context. Why was this decision made? What were external market forces that led to this action? What does this mean for the enterprise as a whole? What does it mean to specific departments and teams?

Use the Right Channels at the Right Times
Think outside the email-box. Sure, email is fast and efficient, but it can also appear cold and incomplete. Examine what works best for your employees and then use all available and appropriate channels, including social media, Town Halls and other meetings, Skype conferences, the telephone, and, yes, in some cases, even handwritten notes that say, "Job well done."

Create a Communications Culture
Be committed to communicating frequently and to transparency. Create an environment where good communication is recognized, celebrated and rewarded.

Live What You Say
No matter what kind communication you undertake, if it isn't matched by action, it is nothing more than an empty promise. If you say you are going to listen to your employees, show them how you listened. If they make a suggestion that you can't implement, acknowledge that you heard and considered it, then share why you couldn't move forward.

Everyone in your company or nonprofit should understand what you stand for and the value you provide to customers, clients and supporters. Great communications can build a team that believes in what you are and rallies behind your mission. And in the end, those communications can also foster the kind of professional conduct that is a living standard for your value proposition.