Fostering Authentic Internal Communications
May 12, 2023
Organizations often put a lot of work into authentic communications. They focus on creating a brand tone and voice that showcases consistency, reliability, and core values, because authentic communication resonates.
Internal communication doesn’t always get the same treatment, even though it's more common than external communication in most organizations. It can be easy to equate internal communications with big events like senior leadership town halls, but it's more than that. It's everything from bulletins to handbooks, 1:1 meetings to peer interactions, and more.
The face of internal communications changed in recent years, with 58% of employees working from home at least one day a week, according to a 2022 McKinsey study. Some leaders might pine for the days when they could call an impromptu meeting in the office to communicate necessary information, but they’re probably looking through rose-colored glasses.
Research shows that effective, authentic communication isn’t so much about being in the same room. According to a 2021 study by the University of Vienna and the Academic Society for Management & Communication, what matters more is the nature of communication. The study found that communication should have a specific goal in mind, which could be:
- Strengthening employees’ commitment
- Job engagement
- Encouraging employees to provide feedback
- Sharing decisions from the management team
Because these goals require authentic engagement from employees, it follows that none of this can be accomplished unless the communication around it is also viewed as authentic.
What Does Authenticity Mean?
Authenticity is a vital component in all kinds of communication, both personal and professional. So, it can be defined in many different — yet complementary — ways. A 2020 study on authenticity in regard to scientific studies explains the concept as “the perception that the scientist is a unique individual with qualities beyond institutional affiliations or a role in the production of the research.” It’s possible to extend this definition when considering a manager who, like a scientist, wants to share information with an educated audience.
Author Michael Schrage, writing in the Harvard Business Review, defined authenticity as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.” But this may feel like walking a tightrope. Things that are funny or clear to one person might be quite offensive or confusing to another. If managers aren’t aligned with employees, authenticity could become a concern.
A 2023 workplace survey by AxiosHQ found that 66% of leaders believe they are aligned with their employees, while only 44% of employees feel the same. One reason for this is that the insights leaders provide are not always clear. In the same survey, 70% of leaders reported that staff could quickly find goals and directives they require to do their work. Only 46% of employees agreed.
Authenticity can help make insights clear. To be authentic, communication must be:
- Thoughtful, in that the takeaway message is created with great consideration.
- Trustworthy, so that managers can always stand behind their word.
- Personalized, both by the person who is crafting the message and to the team members receiving it.
- Respectful, authentically recognizing that leaders are asking team members to take time from their busy day to engage in the conversation.
- Two-Way, as listening with humility is an important part of modern communication.
- Offered with integrity, meaning that employees can understand that whoever is communicating is motivated by good intentions and good character.
- As if a person were talking. Consider using what’s known as “connected speech,” which uses casual abbreviations and a relaxed tone rather than more formal structures.
Read written messages aloud to make sure it sounds natural. If some leaders in the organization struggle with writing, consider creating short video messages instead.
Why Authenticity Is Important
It’s not enough to know what authentic communication is. Understanding why authenticity is essential to internal messages within the organization is also important. When an internal communications team succeeds in connecting with employees, external communications also improve.
Authenticity helps managers build stronger relationships with direct reports and helps peers connect more effectively—both of which can reduce burnout—and that same authenticity can extend to customers. Employees are more likely to embrace authenticity when members across all seniority levels of their organization model it as a core value.
It’s more than a way of speaking.
The same University of Vienna study found that employees didn't like supervisors who were superficial in their communications. These employees perceived that the leader was less competent, as well. When managers spoke authentically, especially with appreciation and an interest in listening, their relationship with employees strengthened.
Let's say a manager needed to share the difficult news that some employees would be furloughed or asked to take time off without pay. Instead of painting a rosy picture of an "unexpected vacation," the manager should be straightforward and clear about the company's financial plan and any future restructuring. They should help team members foster resilience and weather any storms together.
No one expects team members and managers to all have close, personal relationships, but understanding and respect can be built through effective communication. The study found that the organization was strengthened when the emotional bond among employees was stronger.
Authentic internal communications bolster authentic external communications.
“Emotional labor” is a term first coined in the early 1980s to describe the demand of employees to override their true emotions to execute their professional tasks better. For example, a customer-facing team member must “put on a happy face” when working with a customer. This, according to Texas Tech University research, can be a threat to authenticity.
To combat this, leaders must recognize the importance of speaking honestly, with integrity, and as human beings. For example, if the holiday season is always busy, offer stress-relieving activities rather than brushing over the tension and challenges.
When leaders show empathy, they effectively model how to show empathy to team members working with customers. Some managers may feel the need to be stoic in times of difficulty, but being understanding instead can help support a healthy internal communication ecosystem.
Managers can deepen their communication skills
Being able to express complex messages while controlling your emotions isn’t always easy, yet it's a requirement for authentic communication. Leaders must learn to balance honesty and transparency with appropriate emotional undertones. While not every managerial decision-making process needs to be shared with the team, it is always important to treat everyone as the respected professionals they are. This attitude about internal communication should start at the C-level so that executives can model best practices.
Andrew Brodsky, an assistant professor for the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that choosing the medium for communication can help when there is a challenging message you fear may come across inauthentically. For example, when emotions conflict with the message, use audio-based communication styles, like a conference call or video.
Tips for Authentic Internal Communications
As the famed philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The medium is the message.” This means that how something is said is even more important than the message itself. You’ll want to ensure that your message is truly authentic rather than trying to make it seem authentic. Follow these tips to create authenticity in your message, regardless of how it’s shared.
Offer a dialogue
When leaders communicate in a way that discourages discussion, it can feel like dictation from above. That’s not the kind of communication that enhances job satisfaction, and it doesn't reflect reality. Managers are human, just like every team member, and it’s most honest to share information with this equality in mind.
Instead of simply sending an email, consider other methods of communication that make dialogue easier. These might include:
- Virtual town hall-style meetings
- Live webcasts with interactive options
- Intranet posts
- Virtual workshops
- Open-format Q&A sessions
Research published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal shows that job satisfaction improves and burnout is reduced when employees are engaged like this.
Don’t save your messages for just the bad news. Instead, schedule regular communications within a timeline that makes sense for the industry and company. For example, if the end-of-year holidays are always overwhelming, don’t expect team members to spend 20 minutes learning about new initiatives during those times. Instead, consider sharing light-hearted messages about how the company is giving back and celebrating the season.
When leaders communicate regularly, they also have opportunities to experiment with different internal outreach methods. Try creating a campaign with managers sharing parts of their days with short, informal posts or videos. Keeping the medium casual can make it easier to be authentic.
Most importantly, if the internal communications team offers different communication styles, ensure that everyone in the company can access the technology they need to see it. Offer tips or training to people who may be new to an employee dashboard or video conferencing. Reduce as much friction as possible to get the best response to your messages.
Speak/write in the first person
When managers have the freedom to use the first person - “I” and “we” as subjects - it’s always easier to express messages more authentically. Consider this important HR message:
Please be advised that all requests for paid time off must be approved in advance by a direct manager by Friday.
Now see how this wording is different:
Have I shared how excited I am to take my family to Disney World this summer? I received approval last week! If you’d like to take some paid time off this year as well, make sure to ask your direct manager by this Friday’s deadline.
The second version is simply more human. It offers the reader a glimpse into the writer’s personality and even tells a personal story. It still sends the same message, but this internal communication comes across as more authentic and less robotic. Video messages are especially effective, especially when offered in the first person.
Not everything a manager needs to share with fellow team members is going to be popular. In fact, sometimes, they must deliver messages as part of crisis communications. When something happens, everyone in the organization needs to know. This is called responsible transparency, and Purdue University professors explain that telling the truth is one of the most important things business leaders can do.
Honesty is very different from saying what people want to hear. For many people, being a “people pleaser” is a behavior they learned when they were children. While people pleasers are often considered helpful and kind, they can also be inauthentic. While some top executives appreciate this trait, it can backfire when it comes to internal communications. In addition, there's no need to apologize for things that are outside of your control.
Look at these two messages:
Message 1: Free pizza in the break room! Grab a slice before I eat it all!
Message 2: Who doesn’t love the ooey-gooey goodness of a cheesy slice of pizza? I remember my grandfather bringing a pie to my house when I was a child, and it always put a big smile on my face. After we were full, we’d play board games until everyone was exhausted. I hope you feel just as happy as I did as a child when you go into the breakroom. Today, we are providing free pizza to all employees, and I may just have more than one slice!
Yes, the second message tells a story, uses the first person, and positively personalizes its content. But it’s over-personal and takes too long to read. Your team members want to know there’s hot pizza around the corner. They don't need to know the writer's life story. Keeping internal communications succinct will help them avoid seeming inauthentic.
While Message 2 isn’t inauthentic — unless they just made up the story — it’s oversharing, and there’s a full, authentic story told between the lines of the first message: “There's pizza. You can have some, but I have impulse control challenges around pizza. Please hurry for all our sake."
When crafting a message to share big or small, start with the takeaway message. Then explain the concept further and go back to the takeaway message. Respect your team members' time, and they’ll be more likely to respect yours.
Answer their questions
Finally, creating avenues for employees to ask questions and express their concerns can be a natural part of internal communications. The more open and accessible leaders are, the more authentic they will be. Anticipate questions that may arise and answer them in initial conversations, especially for controversial topics. It’s always better for the team to discuss issues directly with managers than to only discuss them among themselves.
Authentic Internal Communication Makes Organizations Stronger
Communicating authentically requires managers and business leaders to show some of their personalities and character. So often, executives think they must be very serious in order to be respected, but the research shows that team members appreciate humility and humanity.
Authenticity means being thoughtful, personable, respectful, and operating with integrity — and this can be done through regular internal communications that encourage feedback, are written with care, and treat the readers like the important team members they are.
To start, review your organization's current internal communication channels with an eye for authenticity. If you don't have an employee newsletter, consider starting one that the team will actually want to read.
It’s worth elevating internal communications to enhance authenticity, because authenticity provides an opportunity to strengthen the entire team and the organization’s bottom line.