Conversation Starter: How Inclusive Are You?

Crowd-sourcing. Co-creation. User-generated content. No matter which of those buzzwords you prefer, the underlying idea is essentially the same: In the world of commercial media, more and more companies are inviting users to help produce the content that they use. What is Facebook, after all, but an immense platform that allows users to operate simultaneously as generators of information and as consumers of information? Or think of the way that most mainstream media outlets now encourage their readers and viewers to submit news tips, video clips, and the like. In short, the line between professional producers and amateur consumers has blurred considerably in recent years.

A similar shift is under way in certain quarters of the business world. Some leaders at some companies have begun to include ordinary employees—not just senior executives, corporate spokespeople, and other authorized communicators—in the work of telling their company story. “Employee-generated content” is one term for this practice. Our term for it is inclusion, and it’s one element of a new leadership model that we call organizational conversation.

Inclusive leaders take the bold step of relinquishing some measure of control over the development and distribution of organizational content. They enable and empower a wide range of people to shape and to spread company messages, not just internally but also (in some cases) externally.

That’s a big departure from how leaders have traditionally managed the flow of ideas and information within their company. And, not surprisingly, there is a reluctance within many organizations to move in that direction. Recently, when we surveyed participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School, more than half of them (51 percent) said that the goal of “encouraging employee voice” had “no priority” or had a “low priority” at their company. (The program in question, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.)

At the level of specific practices, moreover, it remains the norm for leaders not to include employees in organizational communication efforts. We asked participants in that survey whether employees throughout their company “are able to publish original content (such as blog posts) on internal channels.” Nearly half of them (49 percent) said no. We also asked whether employees “are able to participate freely and openly in intranet-based discussion forums.” In that case, more than half of them (51 percent) said no.

The risks that come with conversational inclusion—with allowing employees to participate on official communication channels—are clear enough. But too many leaders fail to appreciate the benefits of taking that step. Better, more varied organizational content is one such benefit. Equally important, if not more so, is the boost in engagement that employees experience when they become active producers (rather than passive consumers) of that content.

Here are four ideas that will help you become a more inclusive leader.

1. Let them build it. To construct and convey key messages, smart leaders don’t always rely on professional communicators or on elaborate messaging campaigns. Instead, they recognize that often it’s front-line employees who know best how to tell a given company story. (For an example of a grassroots project that resulted in an employee-generated book, see our earlier post on that topic.)

2. Lead by following. The notion that senior executives might maintain a blog or a Twitter feed—one that employees, along with other company stakeholders, can follow—is fairly commonplace. In some instances, though, leaders reverse that equation: In a bid to share the digital limelight, they invite rank-and-file employees to become company-sponsored bloggers.

3. Send a messenger (not just a message). People today are skeptical of slickly produced brand messages. They’re skeptical of slick official spokespeople, too. Leaders who want to build public trust in their company brand, therefore, often recruit employees to serve as brand ambassadors. Training people who work for a company to speak for that company is a marketing practice that doubles as an engagement-building practice.

4. Lose control. It’s hard to break free of the mind-set that treats communication as a control function. But many leaders find that ceding control over what employees say on company channels—on an intranet discussion forum, for example—means gaining a new way to tap into the talent, the insight, and the passion of their people. They also find that self-policing by employees works to keep such discussion from going off-track.

For an inclusive leader, the term “employee communication” takes on a provocative new meaning. For generations, that term has referred to communication aimed at employees. Today, by contrast, more and more leaders are seeking ways to leverage the value of communication performed by employee

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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