To Impact Culture, Connect Where It Counts

Communication doesn’t do anything by itself, but you can’t do anything inside an organization without it.

How many times have we heard someone complain, “We really need better communication around here”?

In fact, organizational surveys and commentaries on their results routinely cite the need for better communication to improve organizational climate, culture, and outcomes such as engagement. For example, a 2014 Gallup Poll1 revealed that fewer than 32% of US workers are engaged in their work. More sobering was the notion that nearly 1 in 6 is actively disengaged. Since we know that engagement is an outcome of culture, what does this tell us? Surely leaders didn’t set out to deliberately disengage a large segment of the people in their organizations.

A Case for Better Communication

What’s missing and what needs to happen? Communication will figure heavily in any effort to improve climate, culture, and engagement. However, more communication isn’t necessarily the answer; better communication is. In fact, one of the most important functions supporting an organization’s culture is the character and quality of its communication among its members.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.-George Bernard Shaw

Here are some key questions to ask about authentic, effective communication within an organization:

  • When information originates from above, is it timely? Is it credible? Is it straight from the source rather than filtered through a lot of intermediaries? Is it actionable? Is it in line with the organization’s vision and values?
  • When communication originates from below, is it what needs to be said rather than just “what they want to hear?” Is it acted upon? Is it appreciated?
  • Is communication oriented toward learning and problem solving? Does it focus on interdependencies and include the bigger picture? Does it focus on the overall impact of the group?

When members of organizations answer such questions with a “yes,” they also tend to report that the culture is constructive and, in turn, that they are satisfied with their jobs and motivated to perform.2

Let People Know They Matter

One of the greatest frustrations among individual contributors and their supervisors is not knowing whether what they do makes a difference. People want to know that they matter! And leaders who effectively communicate how their members contribute will generate tremendous trust and, consequently, higher performance.

Leaders seeking to foster and support a constructive culture must recognize and act upon traits of human nature. Those receiving a message, especially a “change” message, are likely to ask two questions that overshadow the features of the message: How will this affect me? And, Do I trust the sender?

Appeal to People’s Core Needs

Psychologists tell us that at the root of human aspiration, we seek three core needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. When organizations strive to foster an environment for attaining these, the resulting climate embeds these qualities in their members’ work.3

An example of where this appears is in high performance athletic teams. In action, we see each member demonstrate a particular set of skills on an individual and collective basis. Athletes often reinforce and energize each other in difficult circumstances. You may also have observed or experienced the way a home crowd can influence the play of a team due to its passion and support. In this symbiotic fashion, relatedness helps lift the performance of those around us.

Business leaders spend much of their time communicating about competence and empowerment (autonomy) but, sadly, tend to overlook relatedness. I see this all too often when coaching leaders on the impact of their leadership or communication style and it is truly rewarding when corrective action is embraced and followed through.

Make the Connection

When we communicate with others, we must not only be very clear about what we want accomplished, it must be relevant—even compelling. Leaders often deprive themselves of a key tool to fortify their message by communicating solely on the technical relevance of a desired action, preferring to withdraw from emotional content or connection. They often fail to leverage the critical component of “relatedness,” the desire for people to be connected to others and to something beyond themselves (in other words, how they matter). Their instructions may be crystal clear but, in the absence of the “why” and “how members fit in,” tasks may ultimately end up being performed in a minimal or perfunctory manner. This could be a component of the lagging engagement ratings we see.

Peter Fuda writes, “To truly engage people, we must speak to their emotions; their hopes and dreams, and their fears and worries.” Elegantly crafted mission and vision statements are not enough; leaders must communicate in a way that goes to the parts of our brain that act instinctively and emotionally. We must connect with others emotionally to invite trust to create a culture that leads to truly higher productivity and satisfaction.4

So ask yourself: Is my communication clear enough? Is it really relevant to others? Am I “connecting” with others and connecting them to the organization, or am I just transmitting information?

I look forward to continuing this conversation and invite your comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.


1Adkins, Amy (2015). Majority of U.S. Employees not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Washington, DC: Gallup.

2Cooke, Robert A. & Szumal, Janet L. (2003). Organizational Culture Inventory®/Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® Feedback Report. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

3Fowler, Susan (2014). Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler.

4Fuda, Peter (2013). Leadership Transformed. New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

About the Author

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Jim Johnson

Serving nearly 30 years as Managing Partner at Level Three Performance Solutions, LLC, Jim Johnson has helped hundreds of leaders from small, privately held companies to global Fortune 500 firms change their cultures and produce better results. As a keynote speaker, executive coach and specialist in the field of organizational culture, he has helped organizations prosper, coaching and guiding them to shape their leaders to maximum advantage and discover the best ways to inspire their teams to perform effectively. Jim holds a bachelor’s degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Johns-Hopkins University. He honors his old school ties as a lacrosse official in Nevada and California.