Communication: The Key to Performance

The best way to improve employee and organizational performance is to improve supervisor communication.

According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the best way to improve employee and organizational performance is to improve supervisor communication.

The study examined the relationship between leadership communication and employee performance. The survey had participants choose responses based on the Supervisor Leadership and Communication Inventory (SLCI), which uses a traffic-light metaphor introduced by Richard Schuttler in his book Laws of Communication: The Intersection Where Leadership Meets Employee Performance. The metaphor categorizes organizations as red, yellow and green on a two-dimensional grid. The theoretical framework allows managers to identify critical concerns in red, elements needing to be watched in yellow and elements working well in green.

The majority of survey participants chose yellow responses for leadership and leader communication. Employees in the yellow zone are identified as floundering from lack of clear direction. There is a general feeling of “anything goes” that produces mediocre performances, internal competition and single-loop learning.

These actions are in response to misaligned objectives from inconsistent leadership. Survey participants believed their leaders were making either haphazard or overly quick responses, rather than proactive, strategic decisions. If supervisors increase their leadership and communication skills, they likely can increase employee and organizational performance.

The survey also revealed a gap between perceptions of leadership from field employees and headquarters employees, even though the same survey was made available to all employees. Approximately 80 percent of the participants were from the field, and approximately 20 percent were employees working at headquarters. The study revealed that field employees had consistently lower perceptions than headquarters employees.

Comments from the qualitative portion of the mixed-method study indicated that field employees did not believe their voices were being heard; they felt that their memos and requests for guidance went unanswered; and they wanted headquarters leadership to require proof from local leadership that headquarters communications were distributed to field employees because they believed they were not receiving important information from senior leadership. Some respondents believed local leadership held on to senior communication and distributed it on a “need to know” basis rather promoting transparency.

Still others felt there was a detrimental disconnect between local management and headquarters, stating they would “get in trouble with local management despite headquarters’ approval.” These findings are comparable to a study within another DHS agency whose participants stated that local leaders felt empowered to do what they wanted despite headquarters’ directives and policies.

Leaders should seriously consider this finding and reassess their strategy for communicating with local leadership and field employees.

An unexpected finding from this study was the comparison between participants who responded to the survey from an electronic invitation and those who picked up paper fliers distributed in employee cafeterias and break rooms. People who learned of the survey from paper fliers in break rooms and cafeterias rated their supervisors’ leadership and communication lower than those who responded to the survey from electronic invitations. Significant differences were found between the average communication score, the average leadership score and the average outcome score. There were no significant differences between the average employee performance score, however.

This research reaffirms findings from a 2007 study by the Partnership for Public Service and a 2008 study by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which listed poor leadership and lack of effective communication as reasons for low employee engagement. The study also suggests that if leaders and supervisors work on moving their leadership and, more importantly, their communication out of the yellow zone and into the green zone, employee engagement could increase, leading to higher employee job satisfaction and performance, better organizational performance and decreased turnover.