What is effective internal communication all about? Is it about creating wise strategies and linguistically refined content that you send to your employees in a newsletter? It's about that, too. But that's not always enough. When your recipients' only reaction is shrugging their shoulders, it is time to reach for somewhat bolder solutions.
Ula Radzińska: HSBC Exchange is the revelation of 2016 for me. It is the best proof that engagement requires discussion, space to talk, and listening from both sides. Here is a priceless lesson: for important strategic information to be heard, there must be space for discussing issues that may not be strategic, but are relevant for the employee. When employees feel they have been listened to, they will listen to the other party. Simple and brilliant. And the most beautiful thing about it – it costs nothing.

Communication can not be one-sided, a fact we tend to forget about – both the agencies which create content for their clients and the clients in their companies, we are used to cascading information via existing channels and in accordance with the corporate procedures. Various announcements and messages are sent from top to bottom, distributed to each department and division.
There are, of course, regular meetings of supervisors with employees that give time for the so called feedback, as the corporate terminology is. But these meetings are also highly formalized and the discussion is always according to a strict scenario, or an agenda, as they would say in a corporation. It is a clockwork system at first glance, but an experienced internal communication expert will notice that the “feedback” is laconic, clichéd and tells us very little. A communication failure…

There is a solution, however. It is being successfully used by Pierre Goad, Group Head of HR and Communications at HSBC London, and his associate Emmajane Varley, Global Head of Insight, Culture and Group CEO communications at HSBC, who aren’t fans of cascading solutions and had the guts to tell the managers: Be quiet!

They did this – as they say – to help people hear each other. They introduced the HSBC Exchange program, simple and groundbreaking at the same time. Something like a role-playing game with a role exchange…
It looks like this: you organize meetings of supervisors with employees, but in groups that aren’t bigger than 15 – they should be 8-10 people optimally. And now the most important thing: there is no meeting agenda and the leader does not give any presentation. What’s more, the leader mustn’t speak at all. The floor belongs to employees, they can discuss anything, from key subjects to details. The first such meetings are difficult for both sides, the leader who is used to delivering speeches and reacting quickly now ONLY has to listen patiently, while employees must overcome their shyness and be bold enough to speak openly. The supervisor writes down the issues that need rethinking and making some decisions. Sometimes there is awkward silence in the beginning of such meetings. This is the decisive moment – the manager must withstand the silence without saying anything or encouraging others to take the floor. The leader sits down and says NOTHING (a method often used in meetings of psychotherapist with patients). Eventually, one of the employees will speak, if only to break the annoying silence. And then you’re over the hump.

Such meetings create space for employees to feel they have the voice – it is important, as the manager-leader is by definition someone used to reacting quickly, and very often even before the employee has finished speaking, the boss comes up with a ready solution or simply says… “That’s irrelevant.” The boss only has his own point of view and seems intimidating for more go-getting employees.

The method used by HSBC is more emboldening. For this reason the method is being adapted by companies all over the world – those which have bold communication departments and bold leaders. What they get in return is effective communication and real feedback – and better communication within a company equals better decision making. Sometimes the best decision you can make is simply to remain silent.

Ula Radzińska told about this method recently during a meeting with one of our clients – I am very curious if the company (can’t tell the name for now) is going to implement this system. If they do, we’ll keep you informed about the effects.