Most, if not all, managers say they should communicate openly and frequently with their employees — but often they don't. See, for many managers, communication falls in the category of “should do” rather than “must do.” And when we're busy, “must do” trumps “should do” every time.
That's where a communication protocol comes in. A communication protocol is a formal process that outlines the types of information to be communicated to an organization, as well as identifying the person(s) responsible for communicating particular topics. The protocol also outlines the audience, frequency, and suggested communication vehicles.
A communication protocol, which should be displayed in all common areas such as lobbies and conference rooms and distributed to all new hires, ensures that communications align with the company's key strategic priorities, whether they be related to engagement or some other initiative. As importantly, the protocol represents a set of company commitments to employees. These include the following:
Leaders will be held accountable for fulfilling their communication responsibilities, and will be assessed on the effectiveness and timeliness of their communication.
Employees will receive regular updates about the progress, initiatives, and changes that affect them.
Most important from an engagement perspective, each communication milestone provides opportunities for employees to ask questions, contribute ideas, and give or receive feedback.
In turn, the expectations for employees are clear. All employees are responsible for sharing information and giving feedback to help the company reach its goals, thereby reinforcing the desire for employees to communicate “up” and bolstering the mutual commitment shared by employer and employee.
There are several benefits to implementing a communication protocol. A communication protocol does all the following:
Defines communication expectations for both employees and leaders.
Builds consistency in communicating the firm's mission, vision, values, and strategy.
Creates alignment with employees at all levels.
Builds in circular communication. Circular communication includes communication between those in a traditional hierarchy, such as the boss and subordinate, as well as communication between business units and departments and communication that leverages task teams and focus groups. In a healthy circular communication culture, you're also including 360 feedback assessments, customer feedback, and feedback within the matrix relationship.
Ensures shared accountability, from top to bottom.
Helps ensure that messages are communicated 13 times, which is the number of times some experts believe an employee needs to hear something to absorb it.
Helps to leverage different communication venues and tools — for example, town hall meetings, e-mails, vlogs (video blogs), department meetings, and so on. (You can find out more about these venues and tools later in this chapter.)
Helps connect all levels of your organization with your brand.
To build a communication protocol, you need a cross-sectional team of executives (preferably including the “top dog”) along with a cross-sectional group of key influencers, or connectors. The first thing this team should do is assemble a draft of the communication protocol. (This will take the group anywhere from two to eight hours.) This figure shows a template for teams in this phase to help guide them in their efforts.
When drafting the protocol, the team should consider the following:
How can we build in the communication of metrics that are key to our strategic plan (for example, growth, profit, employee engagement, customer service, quality, and so on)?
How can we ensure that staff are given an opportunity to communicate up?
How can we build in redundancy in messaging between each level?
When the draft is complete, it should be sent to those who report up through the CEO (and perhaps their direct reports as well) to obtain additional input. This key step will also help you get buy-in. Once the input has been received and appropriated, the protocol can be finalized (see the figure).
With a finalized protocol in hand, the team's next move is to build a plan to roll out the protocol. This rollout should involve significant fanfare to generate excitement.
The launch of a communication protocol is great news, and will be embraced by employees as, to quote Martha Stewart, “a good thing.” That being said, you'll likely meet resistance from middle management, who will likely view the protocol as “one more thing to do that takes time.”
To overcome this roadblock, educate them on the protocol's benefits as well as on how to be an engaged participant in the protocol. Over time, they'll see that the administrative effort involved in maintaining a robust communication protocol will be offset by the gain in their employees’ alignment and engagement.