Empathy, feedback and shorter, focused meetings should be goals during crises — and ordinary times, national survey of professional communicators finds
WACO, Texas (April 12, 2021)— Managers should listen more, be empathetic and be sure they give feedback — even if they cannot solve a problem immediately, according to a Baylor University study that focused on workplace communication during the pandemic.
The crisis highlighted the need for better on-the-job communication with employees now and in the future, when the pandemic recedes, researchers said. Communication often took a back seat this past year, as employees and employers worked remotely, struggled with technology barriers, adjusted to physical distancing and sometimes dealt with layoffs.
“There likely has never been a moment with such demand for ethical listening to employees,” said lead author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor.
For the study, published in the Journal of Communication Management, researchers interviewed 30 communication professionals in the District of Columbia and 13 states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Interviewees represented technology, financial and legal services, food and beverage, hospitality, energy, health care, trade associations, transportation, higher education and consultants.
“We heard that the pandemic posed challenges in internal communication due to the alienation many employees experienced, and it prompted us to reevaluate the moral responsibility communications holds for keeping employees feeling connected to their teams,” said co-researcher Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina.
For all the organizations studied, “the desire and follow-through to ethically listen to employees appeared to be a challenge,” Neill said.
Ethical listening means “listening with an open mind and being able to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Strategic listening is then taking the good and the bad and the ugly and knowing how to use the information,” said one communication manager surveyed.
Researchers found that while senior managers valued communication, it became less of a priority. With workers often no longer sharing physical quarters or even quarantined, the use of Zoom soared, whether for large group meetings or one-on-one sessions. Nevertheless, for communications professionals, remote work made it harder for them to build trusting new relationships. They, like others, felt isolated, missing critical conversations and small talk.
A trade association of the hospitality industry — whose members are primary stakeholders in their companies — needed “a different type of empathetic listening,” said an association communication manager.
“There were stakeholders saying, ‘I’m going to have to close my doors. Please do something.’ And there’s only so much we can do,” the manager said. “This is these people’s livelihood . . . But it’s not just their baby. It’s a baby that generates income for the employees they deeply care about . . . which is a double cut to the heart.”
Most surveyed said the manager messaging/employee feedback ratio was lopsided, with far more talking than listening.
“We cannot promise we’re going to fix everything,” said a communication manager in the financial services. “But we have the mantra if you are asking for feedback, it is critical that you close the loop and say that.”
A communication manager in health care encouraged senior leaders to schedule 30-minute “walk-around” sessions — whether masked and in person or via technology — and build trust.
“Trust has to be built with actions and follow-through, not just words,” Bowen said.
A professional in a law firm invites less vocal members to share their thoughts; another uses on-on-one meetings.
“In groups, large groups, they don’t speak as freely, because there’s a hierarchy,” she said. “If the older, more senior people are not saying anything, then the younger, less seasoned attorneys more than likely will not.“
Communications managers often have limited staff to analyze feedback, plus a lack of communication between departments, especially in larger organizations. One suggestion was that a communication professional sit in on department meetings and be a liaison.
Some communicators saw a need for shorter, more focused meetings, partly to cut down on stress. One consultant said that more visual communications, such as videos and video conferencing, helped employees feel that they are cared for.
“I’m making sure that I have my eyes trained on the screen on the facial expressions,” said another communication manager. “It’s interesting because in watching in a monitor, part of active listening is also looking for visual cues of the reactions of your colleagues. Sometimes those indicators are not just verbal. So I’m taking notes, trying to use my eyes.”
The researchers said they were encouraged by study participants’ heightened level of moral sensitivity and empathy about the impact of organizational decisions on employees’ lives.
“We recommend that senior leadership and communication professionals seek ways to continue to improve moral sensitivity well after the global pandemic has receded, which can lead to more ethical decision making,” Neill said.