Why Your Organization Still Struggles with Top-Down Communication

Did your employee engagement survey come back with a low score in “top-down communication?” If it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone.

DecisionWise consultants notice many patterns as they review company results, identify critical themes, and prepare recommendations for next steps. When they look at survey results, they typically see a prominent weakness in top-down communication.

In 2018 we had 133 companies that asked this question on their employee engagement survey:

“This organization communicates well with all employees about what is going on.”

The median favorability score was only 54%.

When we hold executive debriefs, leaders are usually aware of some of the problems fueling employee dissatisfaction. However, our team can usually help them identify additional issues at a deeper level.  

We want leaders to feel confident in their approach to tackling this issue, so we gathered our consultants and captured some of their expertise to share with you.

Communication Quote Boxes - Charles

Charles Rogel:

Communication Considerations

“Because leaders at the top have unique perspectives and are often isolated, it’s important for them to run a mental checklist when communicating with others.

Who should they hear from or who do they want to hear from?

What type of info do they need or want?

When – How quickly, how frequently?

Why – Describe reasons behind the message, what it means for individuals

Where – Methods of communication could include townhall meetings, e-mail, newsletters, or one-to-one. You can be tactical this way. Don’t fix everything at once. If executives can be visible, employees’ perceptions improve. Transparency and credibility are the outcomes of effective communication. People want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. When employees sense that you sugar coat things, you lose their trust. This in turn leads them to discount what you say in the future.”

Communication Quote Boxes - Dan Deka

Dan Deka:

Equip Your People Leaders

“You can’t get ahead of your supervisors’ capabilities to have the conversation.  I see this happen frequently, when senior leadership shares a positive idea or concept, but supervisors are not equipped to facilitate the conversation with their people.   Often all it takes to prepare people leaders is to have a discussion with them – give them the opportunity to hear you speak about the topic, ask their questions, and learn from their peers.  It takes some additional time and energy to equip your supervisors to effectively facilitate important conversations, but like all important things, it is worth it.”

Effective Survey Response

“I don’t recommend a “survey response” – whether you’re responding to an all employee engagement survey or an individual 360.  What usually happens is people put the results of the survey at the center of their plan.  I recommend putting your business strategy or your most important goals for the next 6 – 12 months at the center of your plan – and learn from the survey what changes you can make and actions you can take to accelerate your progress.  This shifts the energy and focus tremendously.  It also reduces the “one more thing” people must do and instead combines your survey response efforts with your most important priorities, which are already in place and underway.”  

Communication Quote Boxes - Beth Wilkins

Beth Wilkins:

Effectively Communicate Your Vision as a Leader

“It’s critical that executives create a good vision or direction for their people. We could learn how to better paint a picture of potential from one executive I knew. This particular executive would record weekly videos. In these videos he would talk about the future the division was headed toward and give updates on the progress toward their goals. People loved it.” 

Gather Information, Utilize and Acknowledge Your Talent

“Executives also need to find out how their messages are resonating. Some options include skip level meetings or managing by walking around. Some executives we work with are going around to different meetings asking how things are resonating, how things are going, communicating problems that they see and seeking solutions from their employees. One executive did 30-day sprints. He framed a problem and told his employees, “This is what you can do within your stewardship, come back to me with ideas, and we will have a discussion on next steps.” Most of the time, they came up with great solutions that he’d sign off on.

Effective leaders are asking good questions and pulling things out of people rather than telling them what to do. We sometimes see executives ask people to contribute their ideas and then fail to listen to or implement any of those ideas. People won’t continue to contribute their best thinking if executives don’t genuinely involve them in coming up with solutions.

I also often hear executives communicating results solely about profit. When the conversation is always about hitting numbers without a focus on people’s contributions or how the profit will impact individual employees, it doesn’t resonate with people. They start to feel like cogs in the machine rather than human beings. Executives need to truly know their people and tap into the things that motivate them in their communications.

Communication Quote Boxes - Dan Hoopes

Dan Hoopes:

The Pitfalls of Communication

“When communication is written and people can’t ask questions, a negative emotional response may prevail. Top down communication often informs when it should enlist. The mechanism becomes a modality to simply regurgitate information, and the participant receiving the information doesn’t know what to do with it. With messages, understand what problem you are solving with the communication. If I need to enlist vs. inform, I should probably communicate face to face. If there are critical things that you want the receivers to retain, I encourage bullet points that follow the transcript of some of the key messages that should be reiterated as part of the message. This helps circumvent the “telephone game” issue. Making sure you have supporting materials available to help people understand the information also helps.” 

Communication Quote Boxes - Christian Nielson

Christian Nielson:

Strengthen Alignment

“To understand and improve top-down communication, I like to look at what’s happening at the executive level. Is there alignment on the executive team? Do the members share a compelling and consistent vision? If there isn’t alignment at the top, confusion will cascade and compound throughout the organization. I’ve also learned to look for signs that the leadership team has access to employee insights. In other words, does the leadership team listen to employees? When employees hear a message from leadership, if there is no active dialogue, it’s hard for them to internalize and accept it. Strange things tend to happen when a leadership team becomes isolated from the rest of the workforce.”

Leaders Must Walk Their Talk

“It’s important for leaders to walk their talk. There is explicit and implicit communication, you must behave in the way you are communicating, or people become distracted by what you are doing. We worked with a leader of an organization who was trying to get people to own their work flexibility. The company tried many methods to implement change and failed. We finally asked the executive, “What time do you head home each night?” When he told us 8pm, we explained that his employees were probably mirroring his behavior instead of acting on his words. The next day at 4pm he announced, “I’m leaving to attend my son’s lacrosse game, have a good night.” He successfully demonstrated the behavior he hoped to see from his team instead of speaking to it.”

Communication Quote Boxes - Matthew Wride

Matthew Wride:

Leaders Shouldn’t Always Lead the Discussions

“So, in my view, the biggest problem with top-down communication is that the traditional leader holds more power and influence than they should when having discussions.  Top-down leadership is important for decision-making and taking action, but when debating and analyzing a problem, too much power and influence is wielded by the highest leader in the room.  And, most likely, that person may be too far removed from the situation to effectively lead the discussion.    

So, when working through a problem-solving scenario or facilitating a discussion, the hierarchical leader in charge needs to identify who has the most experience and expertise and then allocate influence to these individuals. Formal leadership (i.e., decision making, accountability, etc.) is not the same thing as running a discussion.  Discussions and analyses should be led by those who have the most expertise and experience.  After the analysis is complete and everyone is informed, then decision-making can follow traditional leadership roles.”

If You’d Like More Advice from Our Experts

Consider subscribing to our podcast, The Engaging People Podcast and never miss a blog on organizational change by following us on LinkedIn.