Business isn’t a field for solitary geniuses. Even if a savvy entrepreneur dreams up the world’s best strategy for corporate success, their brilliance won’t count for much if they can’t communicate their ideas to others effectively. Think of a business within that old proverb about the blind men and the elephant: one man stands near the tail and announces that it must be like a rope; another touches a leg and disagrees, saying that it must be similar to a tree; the third feels the tusk and decides it looks like a spear. All three are partially right and completely wrong; none can see the whole picture.
Uncommunicative businesses face a similar crisis of understanding. If a company lacks strong channels of communication or isn’t aligned around a shared understanding of what the company values and wants to achieve, it will inevitably develop fault lines along misunderstandings and fall short of its long-term goals.
This focus on communication might seem overly dramatic – after all, how much of an impact can office conversations and emails between teams and individuals have on company-wide performance? Quite a bit, as it turns out. According to a report from the Grossman Group, businesses across the U.S. and UK lose an estimated $37 billion annually as a result of “actions or errors of omission by employees who misunderstood, misinterpreted, or were misinformed about company policies, business processes, job function, or a combination of the three.” In and out of the office, we can only act on what we know. A lack of communication can hinder projects, drag down performance, and foster resentment between individuals and teams alike as employees conflict over shared tasks with differing expectations.
A business needs to function in alignment. Employees who can’t see beyond their role won’t be able to help the company achieve its long-term goals, or even understand what those overarching goals are. Aligned employees have a clarity of purpose; they comprehend, engage with, and work to enact their organization’s strategic objectives. A quarterly memo or periodic check-in won’t be enough to provide this degree of understanding; companies will need to establish a dialogue about their strategic initiatives and create a positive climate for communication in their offices. Alignment can only occur once employees have a sense of not only what they should be doing, but why they are doing it and how their work will further the company’s goals.
However, the benefits of strong company communication don’t stop with logistical efficiency – it has significant cultural advantages as well. One Gallup study found that employees who “buy into” their company’s mission are more engaged and are more productive because they want to make a positive difference in the organization. This increased engagement comes with a host of positive changes, including increased productivity, heightened profitability, lower turnover rates, and lessened instances of absenteeism. The statistics are clear: caring about a job and the organization as a whole makes a real difference when it comes to performance. Caring, however, can only occur when an employee understands the organization and their role within it; communication constitutes a vital part of building that understanding.
That said, there is a difference between building communication bridges and constructing walls. Too much oversight, communication, and transparency from management can lead to employee disengagement and foster resentful office cultures. As one business consultant addresses the risk in an article for Harvard Business Review, “Managers who hold negative assumptions [about their employees] micromanage, lock up needed supplies, withhold important information, and create senseless rules and policies, causing even the best people to lose passion for what they do.” Trust needs to go both ways; employees won’t believe in or talk productively to their employers unless they feel as though management respects and listens to them. Productivity will drop if workers feel as though they are perpetually under assessment or if they feel like every conversation is an evaluation of their worth.
Productive conversations fuel positive workplace cultures. Ultimately, the secret to creating an efficient and effective company isn’t to flood employees with information or silo them into specific roles, but to create a balanced, supportive, and transparent environment. Like any other interpersonal venture, business requires every participant to know both their position and the overarching mission that encompasses it. Without a culture of communication, employees are little more productive than the blind men in the story: searching for something to engage with, but finding nothing concrete.