In 1998 McKinsey researchers declared that the most important resource for the next 20 years would be talent. They claimed that an organisation’s success would depend on attracting, developing and retaining talented people. And they were right. Twenty years later, the war for talent is sounding long in the tooth, but the principles still hold true. Finding the right people isn’t just smart — it’s essential. And every bit as challenging. A 2017 CareerBuilder survey found that almost three quarters (72.8%) of organisations are struggling to draw the attention of talented applicants.
Making our courtship infinitely more difficult, though, is that we’re more savvy now than ever before. We live in an age of connection and transparency, where every hotel, flight, movie, meal and product can be selected based on peer reviews. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to a decision as important as choosing where we’ll spend the better part of our day, five days a week, we’re just as diligent.
It’s no longer enough to claim to be a great place to work; sites like Glassdoor are exposing the truth. With just a few clicks, we can find peer reviews that describe exactly what it’s like to work for our potential employer. These aren’t carefully manicured press releases by public relations; they are raw reviews about the experience, written by real people.
The employee experience has become a fundamental function. A carefully choreographed dance weaving environmental, technical and human factors together to shape people’s experience and perceptions of work. And central to everything — at the beating heart of every organisation — communication.
A global study conducted by Towers Watson found companies that communicate effectively are four times more likely to have higher engagement levels and exhibit 47 per cent higher shareholder returns, compared to less proficient businesses. Yet, it continues to be an area in which many leaders and organisations fail to keep pace.
From texts and tweets to Snaps and Slacks to memes and emoji, the way people communicate is changing at the same ferocious speed as the business landscape. Workplaces are filled with an unprecedented five generations, each with their own expectations for work and preferences for communication.
The teams of the very near future will be vastly different. The ability to go beyond technical expertise and embrace human skills will be what keeps leaders relevant: inspiring people to do their best work; helping them navigate inevitable change; increasing productivity; promoting innovation; keeping them safe, healthy and happy. Making a difference. Leaving a legacy. These are the hallmarks of a leader skilled in the art and science of human communication.
Understanding how to speak human has become the crucial leadership skill for tomorrow’s organisations. So how can savvy leaders use it to improve their employee experience?
Use curiosity as a shortcut for attention, learning and change
When something intrigues people, they’re compelled to investigate. And when they’re inquisitive enough, it completely consumes them. This makes curiosity ridiculously effective at priming people to actively (and enthusiastically) learn and change. By fostering curiosity in the lead-up to an announcement, program or initiative, leaders can put people in the ideal state to ensure their undivided attention, encourage active learning and discovery, and bring about change.
Use visual communication to shortcut comprehension and simplify complexity
Visualising content dramatically improves comprehension and engagement with even the blandest and most complex content. Images naturally draw the eyes, are processed faster and more easily than writing, transcend literacy and language barriers, and stay lodged in people’s memory long after they’ve forgotten the words. The ease and speed at which visual content is consumed makes it a powerful communication technique for leaders looking to make their message more likely to make a difference.
Use language to shortcut from exclusive to inclusive cultures
Language plays a major role in setting cultural permissions which are adopted as behaviours. Leaders play a crucial role in guiding the shared language of the organisation. ‘Guiding’, because it can’t be controlled by a few individuals it; it’s shaped by everyone who belongs to the culture. It needs to flow naturally through daily conversation. People have to want to use it. And they need to mean what they’re saying.
The best leaders can do is set the tone that echoes through the halls, offices, factories and workplaces. The mantras and maxims, the catch-cries and cultural metaphors, the stories — all filtered into everyday lexicon — are woven into the cultural tapestry. They live beyond brand guides and cultural strategies; they should be as obvious in daily conversations as they are in external press releases and corporate communication.
Is the shared language one of aggression and competition (‘take no prisoners!’), or is it inclusive and caring (‘our people come first!’)? The simplest words seep insidiously into the culture, directing people’s focus and improving performance in certain areas, changing the way people think and act, and changing the customers’ and employees’ experiences.
Above all, language should foster a shared sense of identity, inclusion, purpose and belonging. It shouldn’t amplify differences, but should allow for different dialects. The front line will never express things the same way as the exec. Legal will always have jargon that’s indecipherable and irrelevant to other departments. There’s no single way of saying things that works for everyone.
The challenge is shaping a shared language based on cultural values, while remaining sensitive to people’s differences. Because if language is siloed between departments and teams, it’s likely the culture will be fragmented too.
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Written by Jen Jackson. Jen Jackson and Dougal Jackson are authors of the recently released, How to Speak Human: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from the Humans You Work With (Wiley).