Communication as a Core Competency

Communication is a hot topic for HR professionals these days. The importance of communication popped up in HRE’s coverage, “Building a Team of Teams,” in the Oct. 16, 2017 edition. (The HR analytics chief of the Inter-American Development Bank said the teams needed to include someone with a background in communication, noting, “We needed someone to explain to people outside HR what we can do for them as well as someone who can help our team collaborate.”)

Communication was cited by a Dallas Morning News columnist writing on “hybrid skills” as “technical expertise and the ability to communicate, think critically and work with a team.” It’s even the solution proffered by some in discussions over the cascading topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. One writer argued, “Instead of formal rules, it is much more important to have strong workplace communication.”

HR is the logical location to promote communication as a key strategic skill across the entire enterprise. Here’s a reminder that it’s important to have a philosophy, model and definition of effective communication. Ours is that most of us approach communication with the attitude: “What do I want to say?” or “What do I think the listener needs to know?” But how much does a listener remember: a lot or a little? Everyone knows it’s just a little. HR departments are particularly liable to fall into the “What do I think the listener needs to know?” mentality because a good deal of their communication is oriented to compliance or to new or expanded benefits or mandates–and things change continually.

[Our organization] encourages HR professionals to use [a model that] maps the vehicles the company controls in the formal network and the “informal” network, particularly verbal communication, which is more important than ever.

One big change over the past few years is the growth of “verbal/video-enabled communication.” This is the strategic use of video that requires the skill of speaking through a device–camera, iPhone or iPad–rather than just at it. (Speaking “through” the camera creates the impression that you are speaking directly, personally to the listener. Speaking “at” the camera is when the speaker is looking at the camera but not making true eye contact nor projecting personally.) HR departments can model how to use this powerful technique and encourage both the strategic use and the requirement to improve personal skills. Why is this important? People don’t read.

One of my favorite clients, the just-retired CEO of a major healthcare system, would partner with his HR department to do a 15-second, straight-to-camera video for the annual open-enrollment period. Right to the camera, he would say, “I know you haven’t looked at the material, but it’s really important. It’s important to your family, it’s important to our system and it’s important to me. So here’s the link. Take a look. Let me know what you think.” People would send him emails thanking him for telling them personally.

The next step in re-thinking communication is setting up systems to enlist the listener as an ambassador. The strategy, skills and vehicles are too much to review here, except to say: It can be done, it needs to be a way of thinking and, again, HR professionals are the ones who stretch across the entire enterprise.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, recognizes that employees look to him. He said, “I found that leadership is infectious in a positive and negative way. So if I’m worrying, other people begin to worry. If I’m confident, people tend to be more confident. Whatever you are bleeds into others.” When a CEO recognizes this, it’s up the HR team to carry this commitment throughout the organization.

Merrie Spaeth
Spaeth Communications Inc.