When less is more

When less is more

disengagedWe’ve all watched the ground rumble and shift in the health care sector. For my client, “General Hospital,” this is a story about employee disillusionment during change, about good intentions gone awry…and about how communication played a part.

A 2016 engagement survey revealed that despite the hospital’s long history of open and transparent communication, employees weren’t satisfied. The problem wasn’t communication channels—the portal got high marks, as did town halls, both in-person and remote. The issue was the message, the content of communication.

The VP and I sat in her office reviewing the data and the verbatim comments from employees:

  • “We read about changes that are ‘coming soon,’ and then we don’t hear about them again, or we find out they’re not going to happen. Why bother telling us in the first place?”
  • “Our department was told we’d probably move to another location a year ago. We’re still here.”
  • “We were told that our area’s future is uncertain, and that, ‘If you have the chance to take a job somewhere else, you should.’ That’s a direct quote from my manager. That was three years ago. We’re still scared every day.”
  • “I wish they’d stop wasting my time with emails that seem to be saying something though it’s not clear what it is. That adds to my stress level. I’d much rather be told, ‘We don’t know.’ At least that’s honest.”

Together, we read the biggest ouch: “I’m working on staying positive about my job, so I don’t read or listen to anything anymore.”

What had happened?

For General Hospital employees, life had become much more complicated. Once a small, homespun institution and the apple of its community’s eye, the hospital was well on its way to becoming as large as well-known urban medical centers. Communicators, aware that they needed to stay connected to an audience that had seen more than its fair share of change, were simply trying too hard.

General’s problem wasn’t “over” communication per se. It was “before-the-fact” communication, delivered with the noble goals of candor, frankness, and respect for employees.

Employees heard about every hiccup, sneeze, and event-to-be, in many cases long before final decisions were made. They’d been given a front-row seat at every executive-level debate and allowed to follow decision-making at a depth much greater than they needed or really wanted.

Wait, and when you can’t, go with an honest, “We don’t know yet”

Change is upsetting, a clear case for waiting until there is some level of certainty surrounding an event before announcing it. This doesn’t mean say nothing. Besides, silence just ends up getting filled with scary speculation. It just means wait until there’s something concrete to communicate rather than vague, broad, or incomplete information. It also means telling employees what you know for sure and what you know you don’t know yet.

This strategy galvanizes employees and keeps everyone focused on their work and customers, despite ambiguity and the ups and downs of the marketplace.

When it comes to communication, employees want quality, not quantity. They want to be kept in the loop, but not overwhelmed and definitely not confused.