How to Address a Stubborn Communication Gap

Research shows that leaders still aren't on the same page with employees and stakeholders when it comes to communication, particularly around DEI. Some small but important changes can help.

Disconnects between leaders and employees are rarely hard to find, but the other side of the pandemic has made those gaps more visible in some ways.

For instance, the 2021 Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy report revealed sharp distinctions between what CEOs and employees consider important. Just about all employees (93 percent) who responded to the company’s annual survey said that remote work demonstrated an employer’s empathy, yet only 40 percent said they’ve had a remote-work option. Of those who did, two-thirds said remote work has made them more productive.

Moreover, while 85 percent of CEOs said they reached out to a coworker about a mental-health issue, only 37 percent of employees did. The separation is perhaps starkest, though, when it comes to DEI: While 96 percent of executives said their organizations are inclusive, only 80 percent of employees said so. And while more than three-fourths of executives said their company has DEI programs, only 44 percent of employees said so.

We’re willing to experiment and try new things, and it has worked.

It’s not hard to debate the particulars of remote work and HR that the survey discusses, but the numbers still suggest that crucial elements of work life either aren’t being handled consistently or aren’t being well communicated to employees. And either way, that’s a problem that falls at the feet of the CEO. As leadership consultant Heidi Lynne Kurter recently wrote at Forbes, “CEOs who lack the emotional intelligence to understand another person’s viewpoint or situation will find themselves losing their most valuable people.”

When it comes to the DEI piece, the Businessolver report concludes that organizations need to move beyond buzzwords and demonstrate “tangible actions from leadership.” What might that tangible action look like? One example was recently spotlighted in a report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy that showed how organizations took a “pass the microphone” approach to communicating on social justice issues. For instance, the MacArthur Foundation moved beyond the familiar expressions of concern from top leadership regarding racial discrimination and violence and instead invited its grantees to share their own stories and responses in its press releases. As the organization’s communications director, Kristen Mack, told the publication, “we’re willing to experiment and try new things, and it has worked.”

And tactics that work are still essential: 2020 thrust DEI issues to the forefront, but the Chronicle story points to a survey from the Communications Network that suggests many nonprofits are still struggling to define and support DEI efforts.

Associations want to put in the work here: The ASAE Foundation asked association leaders and employees throughout the pandemic about the opportunities during the crisis, and respondents gave high marks to the opportunity to shape the future direction on DEI. But “managing staff engagement” (which encompasses DEI) gets less emphasis: Associations are much more concerned with revenue (dues and nondues both) and member engagement.

That focus on finance is understandable, of course, after a year and a half of canceled meetings, lost jobs in various industries, and general belt-tightening. But if it’s true that employees see engagement and communication as key to their sticking around, the disconnect between communicating good intentions and following through on them will matter in the long run. Some small efforts can help close that gap and ensure that staff goodwill recovers along with the organization’s numbers.

(Andrii Yalanskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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