Guest Column | November 6, 2020

Please Stop Talking! Why Over-Communicating May Be Making Things Worse

By Andrew Brown and Elizabeth Williams

Corporate Guys communicating from distance

Most organizations recognized the importance of communicating with employees and customers during those confusing, frightening early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. For some software companies, the underused employee communications muscle had atrophied, and executives were hearing from Forbes, HRD, and others that in times like these, overcommunication is what’s needed. But is it?

This article looks at why over-communicating is not the best approach in a crisis, how software executives can find a better balance in their employee communications, and where they can start in planning for 2021.

The Best Of Intentions

Over-communication, however well-intentioned, may increase confusion and erode engagement among employees by overwhelming them. In some companies, employees were greeted daily with a fresh batch of safety posters, email updates, webinars (including webinars about how to have webinars), and videos.

While it seems intuitive that more information is better, in many organizations, employees had multiple communicators sending a deluge of messages, in some cases contradictory messages, hour by hour. Then some of the non-communicators got into the act, sending unverified news reports, disinformation, and, of course, endless Zoom meeting failure videos. According to Edelman, employees worldwide say they are facing an infodemic and finding it difficult to assess credibility in mainstream news and social media. Even communications professionals are finding audience information overload to be a problem.

Brooks’s Law is a good tool for understanding why turning up the faucet on messages isn’t necessarily a good idea. Simply put, Brooks’s Law asserts that throwing extra bodies at a late software project serves only to make it later since more people add more complexity and a need for more communication while slowing down the established cadence of the project team. More, in other words, is not necessarily better.

Why Over-Communicating Is A Terrible Idea

Over-communication, like over-drinking, brings with it several discomforts and challenges for employees, managers, and senior leaders.

  1. Coherence Is The First Casualty In A Crisis

Look at your inbox from late February. It’s probably full of status updates, plans, budgets, meeting requests, itineraries, and so on. Now scroll down and look at March, April, and May. If you’re like most technology leaders, your inbox turned into a dumpster of questions, random facts, updates from public health, cancellations, and a lot of urgent meeting requests.

When we have too much information to process, we get confused and try to figure out what matters. When attempts to parse the information into meaning fail, we become irritated. Irritated, overwhelmed people deal with too much information by simply ignoring it until someone else tells them what matters and what they should do, or if there is an urgent need to act. This breakdown in coherence is common in any crisis, but in an ongoing situation, like a pandemic, it won’t resolve on its own; leaders need to deliberately restore coherence and focus.

  1. The Wrong People Are Deciding What’s Right

Another problem with over-communication is that it shifts the onus of understanding from the employer to the employee. This is a bit like throwing the ingredients for a dinner party on your front lawn and expecting your guests to figure out how to put the meal together.

Employers have a key role as sense-makers. Even during normal times, employees look to their leaders, managers, and organizations to help them make sense of the world. How does a shift in trade policy affect our supply chain? What does a competitor’s new product do to our market share? How does the company’s environmental program fight climate change?

When employees are facing a firehose of information, without any context or interpretation, they are forced to figure out what it means for their role, their team, their family, and the organization, at a time when they may not be making the best decisions.

  1. We’re Just Not That Good Under Fire

It’s an understatement to say the past eight months have been stressful. A recent study finds three-quarters of U.S. workers say they have been struggling with anxiety at work this year due to isolation, economic uncertainty, school closings, and family worries. For many remote workers, burnout is becoming a problem.

Stressed out people also don’t do well when it comes to critical thinking. This makes it even harder for overwhelmed employees to do the heavy cognitive lifting of making sense of an avalanche of information. When that information is critical to their health or their employment, it creates more stress, further impairing their ability to make sense of things, and so on in a downward cycle.

  1. Trust Erodes

Stephen M.R. Covey calls employee trust “a hard asset that accelerates speed and efficiency.” Coherent communication that helps employees make good decisions and increase their understanding of leadership decisions also builds trust, which is key for productivity and engagement, particularly among the knowledge workers our industry relies on.

A survey by Edelman in August showed, however, that only about half of US employees think business is doing what’s necessary to keep workers and customers safe; about the same number trust that corporate offices are safe and just 14 percent say they trust senior leadership to make the final decision about whether it’s safe to return to a workplace.

Trust is a complex thing and communication alone will not fix a low-trust organization, but over-communication and the pressure it places on employees to both understand and act on an overwhelming amount of information certainly works against existing stores of trust.

Finding The Communications Balance

Start by listening. If coherence is the first casualty in a corporate crisis, listening is often the second casualty. Yet asking employees what’s on their minds is the first step in communicating meaningful information in the right ways at the right times. Start with a simple survey to find out what your people want to know, how they want to receive the information, and how often. Follow up with a small focus group to get more input about preferred communications channels and sources.

Use your managers. Speaking of sources, not all communication needs to come from the top of the organization. While CEOs should be setting the tone and overall strategy, employees find their direct supervisors to be much more trustworthy when it comes to information that affects them at a personal level. Work with your front-line people managers to keep the amount of communication reasonable and the relevance high.

Focus on quality. In addition to organizational over-communication, employees are also being overloaded by news, social media, and information online, much of it dubious. Software organizations have an opportunity to combat rampant misinformation by helping employees assess what they’re seeing and reading. A great antidote to rumors and false information is to find, verify, and share good information from credible sources.

Looking Ahead To 2021

It’s likely the pandemic will persist through much of next year, so now is a great time to do some communications planning. If you don’t have a dedicated communications department or individual, you may want to engage some outside experts to help pull together a basic plan. Here are the key questions you need to address for your 2021 employee communications planning.

  1. Who are your audiences? For many software companies, there are a variety of stakeholders who need to receive communications, including remote teams, on-site workers, contractors, suppliers, customers, investors, and regulators. Take time to identify all the groups of people who need to hear from you next year.
  2. What do you want them to do? At the end of the day, communication is about changing behavior. Whether it’s physical behavior to support safety, or it’s showing up and participating in group activities, understanding the desired outcomes of your communications is key.
  3. What do you need them to believe? Our actions are based on attitudes and beliefs. To be effective, communications need to help each stakeholder group believe that certain things are true for the desired behavior to make sense. For example, if you want employees to openly share their ideas in collaboration sessions, they first need to believe that they will be heard and that it’s safe to put new ideas out there without worrying about recrimination or embarrassment. Arming front-line managers with information and talking points about creating safe spaces will help reinforce this belief.
  4. How will you listen? Listening in software organizations must be an ongoing activity and not limited to the annual engagement survey. Now is a great time to bake your listening tactics into your overall strategy. For example, do you need more focus groups or pulse surveys? How can employees ask the CEO questions? Does your internal collaboration platform offer insights about sentiment? Are your managers and supervisors able to gather feedback and push it up the hierarchy?
  5. What metrics will you use? Listening is only part of assessing how effectively you communicate. You will also need to have good metrics around desired versus actual behavior change, the reach of your various communications vehicles, employee engagement in specific messages and programs, and, of course, KPIs that might indicate you are over-communicating.

In uncertain times the urge to over-communicate is strong and perfectly understandable. But the downside is significant enough that all technology leaders should be focused on finding the communication balance that informs, aligns, and builds trust.

About The Authors

For over 25 years, Andrew Brown has helped SaaS/IaaS companies harness communications to thrive throughout pandemics, crises, mergers, acquisitions, expansions, downsizings, and global product launches. He is the author of the “Building strong business relationships” book series. He is co-founder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators and co-hosts of The Swear Jar podcast.

For over 20 years, Elizabeth Williams has worked with companies including ADP, Rogers, TELUS, The Beer Store, Constellation Software, Bank of Montreal, and Aon to help them tell their stories and engage employees and customers in meaningful conversations. She is co-author of The Fearless Communicator’s Guide to COVID-19, co-host of The Swear Jar podcast, and co-founder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators.