Words create worlds

Category: Blog

Interestingly, considerable thought and effort are put into crafting messages to external stakeholders, but not so much into internal communications, which can be radically different in tone and content from external ones. However, it is these internal communications which influence the atmosphere at work, which in turn feeds posts on social media. These are often posts of discontent, disillusionment or of the ‘real’ story from the employees’ point of view. These posts can, of course, be damaging to the organisation - and yet they reflect the employees’ lived experience.  What does this mean for those responsible for internal communications?

Omilion-Hodges and Baker (2014) suggest that a major influence on organisational culture and the organisation’s public persona is the type of conversation which employees have with each other and with the public. Their main proposition is that ‘engaging with, informing and dialoguing with associates in a strategic, purposeful and authentic manner’ will have a strong influence on the way staff talk about the organisation, and that these conversations will in turn impact the way the organisation is perceived. The strategic internal communication which they are suggesting is ‘the thoughtful and proactive framing of messages tailored to meet employees’ temporal, informational and affective needs’ (p. 436). In other words, give them more information, and think about the content and tone of what you communicate.

Assuming that words do indeed create worlds, or that reality is created through dialogue, the things that people say will create an atmosphere, a perception or even an identity. What then are the opportunities for organisations to begin to create an enabling atmosphere at work, a perception that people are important and that their contribution counts or that the company is a great place to work?
The proposition is simple: Communicate with employees as if they were stakeholders. This would contribute to creating a positive culture which in turn would encourage employees to talk about and represent their organisation in a more positive way.

But what shapes our communication styles? The way we communicate is shaped by our beliefs. If we believe that people need to be controlled and cajoled, then the style of our communication will be commanding, terse and parental, and the content will be restricted and monitored. If however the senders of internal communications believe their employees to be partners in business, co-creators of success or collaborative colleagues, then the style and content of their messages will reflect this.

Summarising Omilion-Hodges and Baker’s work, communications which are perceived as positive create a sense of belonging which strengthens a shared sense of identity. Identifying with our place of work promotes positive affect (makes us feel good) and a virtuous cycle of positive communication is created. This positive communication in turn will reach the public through tweets and posts on Facebook and the public eye will view the organisation more positively.

Positive Psychology gives a similar message. Writing about Positive Communication, Kim Cameron points out that the communication patterns of teams significantly impact the quality of their performance. In ‘Positive Leadership’, Cameron (2008) refers in particular to the ratio of positive to negative comments, the ratio of inquiry as opposed to advocacy, the ratio of a focus on others as compared to a focus on self and about the measure of connectivity. He explains these as follows.

Positive statements express appreciation, support and gratitude, while negative ones express disapproval, cynicism or disparagement. In the top management teams of high-performing organisations, the ratio of positive to negative is 5.6 to 1. Cameron underlines the importance of the frequency of positive statements by referring to the communication theory of Gottman. Gottman’s work with newly-weds spanned several years, and suggests that for a marriage to last, there needs to be a ratio of about five supportive statements to each negative one.

Cameron’s research also suggests that there needs to be a balance between inquiry statements that ask the other person’s viewpoint, or ask questions, and advocacy statements, such as telling, or sticking with one’s own point of view. Unsurprisingly, low performing organisations have more advocacy statements than inquiry statements.

On the self and others scale, a 1 to 1 balance is found in high-performing organisations, while low performers have a ratio of 100 to 3! This means that for every 3 times a manager in a low-performing organisation refers to others, he refers to himself or his point of view, etc., 97 times!

Finally, Cameron also reports on connectivity (engagement, participation, information flow) and indicates that high-performing teams have a 2 to 1 ratio in this area when compared to low performers.

The evidence which Omilion-Hodges and Baker and Cameron present is compelling. Thinking about what we want to say, and how we express ourselves, can have a noticeable impact on how employees perceive and talk about their organisation. Checking the frequency of positive to negative messages, and asking more than telling, and focussing on the other, can create and sustain positive relationships in the workplace.



Cameron K. (2008), Positive Leadership, Berrett-Koehler
Omilion-Hodges L. & Baker C. R. (2014), Everyday talk and convincing conversations: Utilising strategic internal communication, in Business Horizons (2014) 57, 435 – 445.