Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Building employee trust requires honesty — and proactive communication

Here’s the thing: trust is not about guaranteeing employees that nothing bad will ever happen. If building trust requires a guarantee of anything, it’s that the company will tell employees what’s really going on, even if it’s bad.

Employees are smart enough to realize that no company can promise lifetime employment anymore. Most employees don’t even want lifetime employment. They want interesting, challenging work, and in an ideal scenario, work that they find personally meaningful.

They start a new job with the expectation that eventually they’ll move on to another company. Ideally, this would be when they themselves decide it’s time for a change. But unless they’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, they recognize that sometimes companies have to lay people off, eliminate positions or somehow reduce head count.

Honesty, then, becomes the real building block of trust. Employees feel trust in their company — and thus do their best work and are most engaged — when they believe management is being honest with them. So how does a company go about doing that?

1. Tell employees about any significant changes in the company — and tell them fast, before the rumor mill and the media get a jump on you. Some CEOs and other leaders delude themselves into thinking that if they don’t say anything, the employees won’t notice that anything is going on. Wrong. Employees know when something is up, and in the absence of management communication, they’ll take their information wherever they can get it, often from each other.

2. Tell the truth, even when it’s bad news. Particularly when it’s bad news. If employees know that the company will be straight with them in communicating negative developments, then they tend not to worry so much. Ironically, sharing bad news makes employees feel more comfortable instead of less so.

3. Give employees credit for being smart enough to know business includes both ups and downs. Most people have experienced plenty of highs and lows in their own lives, and they have an understanding that things move in cycles. Just because the business is down today, doesn’t mean it won’t be up tomorrow.

4. Make room for employees to ask questions. You have to make this honest communication a two-way street. Provide an intranet page for submitting questions or employee Q&A in town hall meetings or some venue for your people to ask management about the tough issues. That gives the company a chance to respond to the concerns that you have to accept are swirling around the workplace. The other side of that coin is that employees need the information they need to make their own decisions –even if that means their decision will be to leave the company. Although by answering their questions, you make it less likely that they’ll feel in a panic to jump ship. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as employees imagine it to be.

5. Share the management vision for the future. Most corporate management teams believe they’re doing this all the time, and it’s true that the people closest to them are familiar with the vision. But when we speak to the rank and file, there is most often a disconnect and the further away an employee is from the top, the less confident they are that the company leadership has a plan. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective is a management blog, which we at Tribe liken to “walking the halls, electronically.” A employee blog allows a CEO to communicate one on one with the entire workplace, and to reinforce the vision over and over, and to discuss a range of aspects of that vision.

Interested in communicating proactively and honestly about an upcoming change? Tribe can help.


Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

TRIBE TRIVIA: Employees Communicating Up to Top Management

True or False: Employees have little time or interest in communicating to their leadership.

False: Only 2 percent say a channel for them to communicate with corporate management is “not at all” important, according to Tribe’s national research on employee preferences in internal communications. Of the remaining respondents, 58 percent said it’s “extremely” important; 26 percent “very” important and 14 percent said it’s “somewhat” important to them.

For more information about this study, see Tribe’s white papers and other resources on the expertise page of tribeinc.com, or contact Steve Baskin, President and Chief of Strategy at Tribe. 

Brittany Walker

4 tips for keeping employees engaged in your intranet

Launching a new or updated intranet is a great start for improving internal communications. It is however just that, a start. The real challenges usually come in the following weeks, months, even years. A well thought out sustaining plan can be the key to keeping engagement high. Here are four tips to keep employees coming back to your intranet.

  1. Keep content fresh. When used properly, a successful intranet goes beyond the function of a virtual filing cabinet. Fresh, relevant content updated daily or weekly will keep employees coming back. To make every-day content creation more manageable, Tribe recommends establishing a content manager program. By empowering content managers across geography and work functions, you can build an army of ambassadors who keep news refreshed on an ongoing basis.
  1. Create a welcoming collaboration space. Breaking down silos through collaboration is a common goal, but often difficult to achieve. Providing employees with a collaboration platform in an environment where they already regularly visit is a big step towards making it easier. When choosing a collaboration tool for your organization it’s important to include employees in the discussion to really determine what tool will work best for your culture.
  1. Offer two-way communication. Leadership visibility is a frequent request of employees from all types of organizations. Providing an area on your intranet where employees can ask questions, give feedback or voice concerns to leadership is a great way to give them the outlet they need. Completing the loop of two-way communication is essential to employees feeling that their input is respected by their top executives.
  1. Provide a positive user experience. One of the easiest ways to lose engagement in your intranet is to make it difficult to use properly. If employees aren’t getting what they need in an intuitive and productive way, it’s harder to keep them coming back. When possible, Tribe recommends asking employees what attributes they would like in an intranet. Following launch, it’s also important to keep tabs on the functionality for the best possible experience.

At Tribe we like to think of the launch of an intranet as the starting line, not the finish line. Need help increasing engagement in your intranet? Tribe would love to help.


Steve Baskin

Corporate leadership and two-way communications

Fast Company recently featured a study that examined the success ratios (and failures) of attempts on summiting Mt. Everest. To understand the impact of hierarchical cultures in high-pressure group situations, the study analyzed more than 5,000 expeditions and 30,000 climbers over the past 100 years. The researchers included Eric Anicich and Adam Galinsky from Columbia Business School along with Roderick Swaab of INSEAD, an international business school. Their focus was on expeditions whose climbers were from countries (27 of them) with a more hierarchical business approach.

In the simplest terms, climbers from more hierarchical countries had the highest rate of success in summiting Everest. Unfortunately, this same subset had the highest mortality rate on the mountain. The organization and leadership provided by hierarchical structures allow initiatives to move forward more efficiently and productively. However, hierarchy can also create an environment that inhibits low-ranking team members from speaking up and sharing their valuable and critical insights. These insights can mean the difference in life or death in certain high-risk situations.

The study speaks to examples of the wealthy, type-A adventurers who domineer the expedition team. (I’ve noticed that Europeans often call these Americans.) The one-sided relationships can cause experienced Sherpas to keep quiet when their wisdom might be needed to keep the team alive.

The reported lack of team coordination on the Asian Airlines crash in 2013 is a similar example. After months of analysis on equipment, weather and other factors, a lack communication (between very experienced pilots) received a large percentage of blame. In what is known as Cockpit Culture, the senior captain is viewed as supreme. In this instance, the co-pilot, who happened to have more experience with both the type of aircraft and the airport, did not feel that it was appropriate to override the Captain until the situation was beyond repair.

 We’re not all going to be climbing Everest or piloting a 777, but we see examples of this in more mundane workplaces. At Tribe, we regularly see instances of employees who are uncomfortable or unwilling to air issues or bring ideas to the table due to the fear of backlash or apathy from the feeling that they’re never listened to.

We work with health care organizations, where this lack of communication could indeed endanger lives. We work with engineering and technology groups where design errors and problem-solving issues could have significant longer-term consequences. More often, though, we work with retail and service organizations where a lack of two-way communications simply means that the company isn’t getting the most out of the knowledge base of its frontline organization.

Clearly, the goal is for a company’s leadership to drive toward a culture of open and productive communication throughout the organization. However there’s always going to be a percentage of an employee population that feels uncomfortable providing input on or critiquing management’s strategies or tactics.

Through engagement surveys and other feedback loops we can understand where communications roadblocks exist. We can develop a decent sense of the root causes of the issues or threats. As communicators, we can ensure that channels are in place that allows team members to provide timely input – anonymously if necessary – on projects or initiatives that are important to the company.

The research team sums the issue up very nicely. “Whether a team is climbing a mountain in the Himalayas or tackling a high-stakes business challenge in the boardroom, it’s critical to leverage the coordination benefits of hierarchy while also embracing an environment that encourages and rewards participation and input from all levels,” said Anicich.

Working on two-way communication strategies? Tribe can help.

Stephen Burns

Opening Up the Lines of Communication

Can you hear me now? According to the Wall Street Journal, Kumu Networks, a small start-up out of Stanford University, has developed a technology that effectively doubles the capacity of cellular and Wi-Fi communications over a network. In layman’s terms, it frees up the lines and eases congestion associated with slow connection and download times. This innovation could really help businesses de-bug two-way communication channels. Gone would be the days of dropped calls and frozen videoconference screens. Virtual meetings and real time file sharing would be a breeze.

An easier way to improve two-way interaction. Technology overload might not be the only problem in intra-office communication, though. Tribe’s latest white paper survey shows that the thing employees want most out of C-level teams is timely and personal two-way communication. Responses included things like, “Corporate cannot always see problems that come up on the units because they are not there and “Listen to us and don’t ignore us.” An overwhelming number of respondents said it was “extremely” or “very” important to provide open channels for communication to corporate. This still may come as some surprise to some executives, but at Tribe we’ve been on this train for years. Here’s some great insight for how to improve two-way communication in your business from the Good Company Blog. –SB

You can’t just talk to your employees; you have to talk with them. This might sound like a no brainer, but when you really take a look at your communication vehicles you might find that you’re communicating on a one-way street. Talking one way is better than nothing, but your communications will be way more successful if employees have the opportunity to talk back.

Don’t be afraid of negative feedback. We find a lot of companies don’t want to allow two-way communication because they’re worried about negative feedback. Remember: Negatives can be positives because they give you the opportunity to see how employees might really be feeling. If they don’t have a forum to speak their mind you might not even know something’s wrong. These negatives give you the opportunity to address things other employees might be feeling as well.

Start with what you have. Evaluate the ways you’re connecting with your employees and make small adjustments to open up the lanes of communication. Add a forum to your intranet or the option to “like” and comment on blogs. Make sure you have a way for employees to submit article ideas and contributions to your newsletter and magazine. This can be as easy as a dedicated email address. Also be sure to give managers talking points for new initiatives in order to foster dialogue.

Once you have some basic channels in place, then you can work up to more complex systems. Many times your employees will be the ones to tell you what they want. Think about starting an idea submission program that will not only keep the lines of communication open, it will help foster innovation. Just be sure you’re talking instead of telling.


Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

White Paper Insight One: Two-Way Communication

Employees have things to say to their company leadership. In Tribe’s recent study “Employee Preferences in Internal Communications,” over 84 percent of survey respondents believe it’s “extremely” or “very” important for companies to provide a way for employees to communicate with corporate management. “Not at all” important garnered only two percent of the vote.

Comments and write-in responses included:

“The executive wing is so far removed from the day-to-day activities of people, they have no clue about what’s going on.”

“Employees should feel like they have the opportunity to be heard.”

“Listen to the people that actually do the work.”

Many respondents voiced the desire for an established process for communication with corporate. When asked about their preferred features in a company intranet, 55 percent said they’d like the intranet to provide a forum for them to communicate with corporate management. Comments included:

“I want a system to give my feedback”.

“Create a link on the intranet where you could directly submit ideas.”

“More structured ways of communication.”

When they take the time to communicate to corporate, they’d also like to know they’ve been heard. Completing the loop of two-way communication is essential to employees feeling that their input is respected by their top executives.

 “When I submit feedback, I would like it if corporate acknowledged my feedback.”

 “If an employee leaves some kind of message for you, reply to it. We all deserve to feel heard and respected, not to feel stupid.”

 “A response one way (or the other) is critical for ideas to continue to flow.”

Tune in next Monday for the post on Insight Two: C-Level Communications. The full white paper on this research will be available mid-October on the Tribe website at www.tribeinc.com/best-practices.




Increase retention by helping employees advance their careers through training

Training programs can be a key element in employee retention.  The overarching goal of a good training program is not only to improve company performance and build powerful brand ambassadors, but also to help employees advance in their own careers.

When employees see training programs as an avenue for career growth, they’ll become more engaged with the material. And a more engaged employee is someone more likely to stay with the company. It’s a win-win situation for both the company (whose employees are better trained to do their jobs and perform at a higher level) and the employee (who feels his career is progressing in a positive direction).

Of course, it’s also important to ensure that training programs themselves are engaging. It will be hard for an employee to see the benefits of training if the material and/or presentation is boring. The first step is to make the training materials and format more appealing and motivating.

Communicate the “why.” Employees need to know that the time taken away from their regularly scheduled jobs is for a purpose. If they know up front what the training will entail and how it will help them do their jobs better or advance their career, they will be much more likely to see it as an opportunity rather than an obligatory and pointless task.

Allow opportunities for two-way communication. The advent of social media has done wonders for two-way communication in large corporations, giving employees a channel to provide feedback in a fashion that allows acknowledgment of their comments. Gone are the days of the “comment box” that never gets read. Employees expect their voices to be heard and social media tools like chat rooms and forums on the company intranet allow for that to happen. Incorporating these elements is an opportunity to improve training programs, making them more beneficial to all involved.

Need help developing an engaging training program? Give Tribe a call – we can help!

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Four approaches for reaching frontline and field employees

How does your company communicate with employees on the frontline, the retail floor or the factory line? Many companies leave all internal communications with non-desk workers to their immediate supervisors. Tribe’s national study with the non-desk employee population* indicates this is a missed opportunity to build engagement. What’s more, those employees who never hear from top management interpret that as a lack of respect for them and their contributions to the company’s success.

But how do you reach employees who are in stores, distribution centers, restaurants and out driving trucks all day? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, as you must consider the physical realities of their days and think creatively to identify potential touch points. Generally, Tribe recommends a combination of high-tech and low-tech solutions to build channels from corporate to the front lines.

For starters, Tribe also recommends the following four approaches:

1.    LOOP THEM IN: Commit to at least one channel through which non-desk employees will hear from management. This could be a town-hall meeting via video for manufacturing employees, a recorded message accessed through an 800 number, or even a quarterly letter from the CEO mailed to employees’ homes.

2.    ASK THEM WHAT THEY THINK: Having corporate management talk to this audience is a good step, but you also need to create opportunities for these employees to share their comments and views. Two-way communication methods — from the ability to comment on changes in the company, to soliciting ideas for improving systems and processes — demonstrate management’s respect and the desire to understand the realities of these employees’ jobs.

3.    MAKE THEM HEROES: Spotlight frontline and field workers and celebrate their contributions, through regular bio pieces in a company publication, recognition programs or contests that highlight employee performance.

4.    TAKE THE CEO TO THE PEOPLE: Again, there’s no substitute for giving employees a chance to meet face-to-face with top management, and it’s particularly meaningful to non-desk employees. Look for opportunities to have members of your leadership team visit stores, plants and other facilities so they can rub elbows with the people doing the most important work of your company.

For the white paper on  Tribe’s non-desk research, see “Communicating with Non-Desk Workers,” at www.tribeinc.com/bestpractices.

Elements of a Strong Internal Brand

While companies pour funds, work hours and research into making their external brand a recognizable piece of the lives of consumers, they sometimes neglect to dedicate that same amount of attention to their internal brand. It makes sense the people you’re seeking out to purchase your product be educated on how it will benefit them or their business, but all of the costs associated with this can go to waste if it isn’t supported by employees who feel just as ingrained in the brand as the consumers they interact with.

A good way to build your internal brand is by aligning your commitments. If you’re a hotel chain that promises the best overnight stay to your guests, then that same message should be presented to employees. They should understand what the goals of the company are, and then be encouraged to adopt these goals for themselves. They’re many different moving parts in big organizations, and properly aligning and communicating customer promises will go a long way in helping your operation run smoothly.

As important as it is that company goals are cascaded down to every member of your team, it’s also important to have an outlet for employees to send messages back up the ladder. Every day your frontline workers are face to face with customer experiences that provide unique insights. Giving them a way to share these experiences can lead to new approaches or processes that not only help employees perform better in their roles, but also help your company grow.

One of the key elements a strong internal brand offers a company is consistency. Consistent messaging from corporate to the front lines, as well as consistent messaging from everyone in the company to the customers they serve. When everyone is on the same page, it not only makes for happy customers, it makes for happy and dedicated employees.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

How to help direct managers share communications with employees

Does your company leave most employee communication up to direct managers? That’s a common default mechanism for keeping employees in the loop, particularly when those employees don’t have their own computers at work.

It’s not a bad system, but employees do cite two issues with communication flowing only through their direct managers. One is consistency of message, since each direct manager will interpret news in their own way, creating employee concern that important points might be lost in translation. The other is timeliness of the message, particularly in times of major company change. Each direct manager will generally communicate on his or her own timetable. Employees don’t like knowing that other employees heard some piece of news before they did.

How can internal communications departments help direct managers communicate more effectively? One is by developing communications toolkits, giving managers prepared materials they can easily pass on to employees. For instance, Tribe recently built a toolkit to help managers of a large company with many brands communicate the company’s  sustainability efforts to employees.

The kit, delivered on a jump drive, included materials that were ready to use as-is as well as templates to be adapted by the individual brands. Direct managers will be able to communicate the sustainability messages as simply as copying and pasting prepared emails. They also can adapt newsletters, posters, FAQs, and more to their own brand standards.

A tried-and-true method of supporting direct manager communications is to institutionalize some sort of pre-shift meeting. One of Tribe’s clients uses weekly meetings to share prepared messages focused on the brand’s internal culture and values. Another begins every shift with a brief message from corporate.

Of course, employees still want to hear from the top. Although direct managers might be able to handle the bulk of company communications, it’s still important to provide at least one channel of communication directly from top management to employees. Even better, make that channel a means for two-way communication, so employees can share their insights, concerns and ideas with their corporate leadership.