Culture,  internal communications

The unspoken language: How internal communication shapes your culture

Whether it’s intentional or not, every organisation has a culture – a unique set of beliefs, values, and behaviours that shape how things get done. It is a critical contributor to capability and performance, and it’s the thing that will make our people pumped to rock up to work each day and do their best (or not).

Every day, I talk to our clients about the culture they are trying to achieve and what they can do to actively shape it. But what shapes this culture? It might surprise you to learn that a significant influence comes from something simple. That eternally underestimated and underappreciated function: internal communications.

How we communicate and connect within an organisation is the foundation of the culture. Every interaction, every meeting, every email, every intranet update contributes to the unspoken language that drives how employees feel and behave, shaping the shared culture and overall performance.

Beyond information sharing: engaging the workforce

Too often, internal communication is seen as simply a way to transmit information – organisational news, policy updates, or leadership messages. The question we currently ask is, ‘How do we get this information out and how often?’. However, if we think about it as more than just an information sharing channel and more as a way to tangibly demonstrate our corporate values, it can make a massive difference.

The question needs to become, ‘How can we use this as another opportunity to demonstrate our values and build a strong sense of belonging?’. Contemporary internal communications should create an channels that provide employees with the information they need, when they need it, and opportunities for gathering ideas and feedback. This two-way engagement fosters a sense of ownership and accountability, leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.

Asking employees what they want from internal communications not only gives you data about how your channels are performing, but also puts values like respect, service and accountability into action!

Aligning communication with values

A good place to start is organisational values. Let’s use the APS values as an example. We can use values as a framework from which we can develop a range of ideas about how and what we communicate internally, pushing beyond the usual ‘hey there’s a new update to the HR policy’ guff we usually see.

Committed to service: an APS that is professional, objective, innovative and efficient that works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government.

  • Incorporate leadership messages that consistently encourage employees to identify innovation opportunities that will benefit our community. Regularly share stories, big and small, from across the organisation where people have made a process, service or system better.
  • Share feedback from clients, members of the community and/or stakeholders as an ongoing part of the internal newsletter or secretary messages to highlight service excellence. Don’t save these for a special event, but consider them as fuel for the connection to the purpose fire!  

The ethical value: an APS that demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and always acts with integrity.

  • Identify opportunities for senior leaders to be transparent about ethical challenges they’ve encountered or mistakes they’ve made. This is a great way to build a stronger culture of psychological safety that encourages open dialogue about potential integrity issues or failures. (Microsoft’s Satya Nadella offers a great example of a senior leader who encourages ongoing growth and learning through regularly admitting when he gets it wrong).
  • Ensure policies, guidelines and decision-making tools are easily found and understood. User-test them across the organisation, from your graduates to senior executive, to ensure employees know what they need to do to be compliant.

The respectful value: an APS that respects all people, including their rights and their heritage.

  • Be respectful of your employees’ time and ensure all internal communications have a clear objective, are targeted and written in plain English so that everyone can understand it.
  • Review your content across all channels and consider who your messages are coming from. Do you have diverse voices? What about your visuals? It shouldn’t be a ‘tick the diversity box’ exercise, but you should be looking for those opportunities to bring in different voices and ideas and share stories about how diversity delivers on better outcomes.  
  • Show respect to employees by regularly asking them what they want from their internal communications channels – it’s not a set and forget. Your audience are the experts on their preferences!

The accountable value: an APS that is open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of ministerial responsibility.

  • Consider the organisation’s vision and strategic goals. Can these be found easily, and does everyone know how you are tracking against them? Can you provide a regularly updated dashboard or infographic to build understanding of progress towards those goals and where more focus is needed? Too many departments are scared to do this, even with their own people, because they are worried about what to do if those goals aren’t achieved! They don’t consider the risk of people getting frustrated when they are kept in the dark or disconnected from the bigger picture.  

The impartial value: an APS that is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.

  • Treat your people like the minister and make sure they are getting information that is equally frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence. Too many departments feel the need to craft difficult corporate messages that sound like corporate speak bingo cards.
  • Consider the most appropriate channel to facilitate timely discussions – it could be a mix of all staff emails, team meetings or townhalls. Either way, ensure there are opportunities for real discussion, questions and frank answers. Where I’ve seen senior leaders do this, they haven’t always given the answer that people wanted to hear, but everyone appreciated the directness, and it only served to build more trust.

These are just a few ideas to help rethink your internal communications so that it is actually shaping the culture you want to see – not conflicting with it.

Internal communication is a powerful tool that can shape the very essence of an organisation. Remember, the company culture you create is the company culture you’ll get – so make sure your internal communication strategy reflects the one you desire.

Reach out if you’d like a chat about how you can make your internal communication a powerful tool for getting the organisational culture you want.

Behaviour and Culture Change Consultant. Chief Glitter Officer.

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