The significance of internal communication on organisational behaviour and employee engagement
A case study in an Australian Zoo
Larry Perry, B AppSc (Hons) Charles Sturt University
Executive Summary of Honours Research (2007)
A seminal component of the functioning of organisations is organisational communication. Communication drives relationships and frames behaviours of people in the workplace and is a significant factor in the effectiveness of organisations (Pettinger, 2000: Vecchio, Hearn and Southey, 1994).
Other components that contribute to organisational effectiveness include an organisation’s culture, vision, mission, strategic goals, hierarchical structure, leadership skills, daily operational activity, corporate knowledge, and the degree of success in communicating these components within the organisation. These common themes and components influence, and are influenced by, internal communication within the workplace. This research set out to explore these common elements and components and their relationships to one another using a single case study, an Australian zoo.
This paper is a summary of a dissertation resulting from research conducted as a requirement towards a Bachelor of Applied Science (Honours).
The aim of this research was to explore and understand internal communications as they apply to zoological parks and aquaria.
The research sought to:
- explore and describe internal communication and information exchange within zoos, and subsequently
- explore the relationship between internal communication and employee engagement and the achievement of an organisation’s vision and mission.
The Case Study and Methodology
The research was undertaken within an Australian zoo, as a single case study.
The interview data collection for this project utilised in-depth semi-structured interviews (Sarantakos, 2005. p. 268), using a highly iterative explanatory approach (Neuman, 2003) using interview guides to identify how much staff knew about their organisation’s missions, policies and management processes and to assess the communication strategies and media used to inform, consult and engage staff.
Twenty one interviews were conducted, varying between one to two hours each. This number of informants was a significant percentage of the organisation’s total employees and provided greater clarity to the themes drawn from the data and from which to draw conclusions.
The informants were drawn from three identified organisational hierarchical levels. These three levels were;
· senior management
· middle management and supervisory employees and
· employees with no supervisory role.
Selection of the informants was from recommendation from senior management, from a request by the researcher for volunteers and from opportunistic information obtained in interviews that suggested specific employees may have a significant role in the organisation and or willingness to discuss communication related issues. Each informant contributed significantly to the richness of the data.
The data from the interviews, observations in the field and document analysis was extensive. Some issues that were raised by informants during the interviews, such as power and authority, were dealt with only briefly in the dissertation. A limitation on time available to the researcher to explore elements outside of the scope of the primary research aims prevented further exploration of these issues.
The data from this case study, in conjunction with the literature review undertaken as a component of this research, both contributed to understanding the significant and complex role communication plays in organisations, employee engagement and in organisation effectiveness.
The section headings identify the commonality of themes resulting from the interview data provided by the informants; however, each area has a direct relationship with the others and data could have easily been assigned to other section headings.
The summary of data in this paper is but a mere outline of the major issues identified by participants. For a complete understanding of the significance of the participant’s issues and perceptions it is recommended that the completed dissertation be read in its entirety.
Summary of Results
The results of this research reports on significant failings in components of organisational behaviour. The results do not report extensively on organisational and individual behaviours that for the most part were working well, for to do so was considered to be counter productive to identifying the significant opportunities to improve internal communication and organisational effectiveness.
Research has shown that too often organisational failings identified in research or reported in public forums are not acknowledged as legitimate issues of significance, but rather are attributed to misfits and troublemakers or as outliers in the data rather than being acknowledged as opportunities to seek out and improve the organisation’s culture and effectiveness.
Additionally, literature in organisational behaviour identifies that the acknowledgement of personal or organisational failings is often difficult to admit and more than often not reported upward through the organisational structure for fear of poor performance appraisal by leaders or other stakeholders.
The failings of organisations to acknowledge their short comings are documented in the literature and exist in a large number of organisations.
What is done with the results from this research will define the organisation in the future; and contribute to defining its culture and it’s effectiveness as an organisation and meeting the organisation’s vision and missions.
The Structure and Change
The case study organisation had during the 12 months prior to this research under gone a significant restructure and change to its vision, mission and strategic goals. A significant area of concern identified in the research data was the confusion amongst middle management and non-supervisory employees created by:
· a perceived lack of consultation by management before the restructure and change
· a failure of management to communicate the changes clearly
· a perception that there was a failure to effectively consult with all employees and
· a perception that there was a failure to effectively provide details to support the structural changes.
The combination of a poorly implemented restructure, with poor communication competence and a failure of communication systems were identified as leading to a lack of employee knowledge and understanding across the zoos two properties. The absence of clearly defined job descriptions was perceived by informants to lead to significant difficulties for the organisation in implementing it’s restructure.
Communication competence for the purpose of this research includes the elements involved in successful communication of messages to and from management and between departments and employees. These may include; the physical and structural processes as well as the soft skills of those employees sending and receiving messages.
Analysis of the data revealed that some of the mechanisms and systems utilised within the zoo, including formal and informal meetings, written documents such as minutes and reports, and the use of email and electronic media and hardware were ineffective in delivering high quality information and knowledge to the organisations employees.
The ineffectiveness in communicating messages was identified by the informant’s responses, where informants:
· were not readily receiving information or messages
· were not consulted and
· had a mistrust of messages due to the incongruence between rhetoric and behaviour by management.
Additionally, issues of effective inclusion of employees in strategic planning through consultative process were identified in the data as significant issues for informants.
The literature on communication competence suggests that if messages are to be conveyed to employees effectively then the methods and the systems to convey the messages must be appropriate and effective for that audience. The data from this case study indicates that the information resulting from meetings was neither adequately conveyed to employees, due to a number of blockages, and was not being conveyed through the appropriate systems to the required audiences.
Email and Computer
The use of email and computers is acknowledged in both the literature and the data as being an important means of communication within organisations and yet the data from this research identifies some significant flaws that prevented all employees from benefiting from accessing information and communicating via this media. Increasing access and resolving technical difficulties are ways in which the informants identified that communication competence can be increased to encourage improvements to information flow up, down and across the organisation.
The data identified that most of the informants perceived there to be little or no consultation and the majority of non supervisory informants indicated that they had received no information at all on the strategic goals. This key point contrasts with responses from senior management informants who indicated that employees were provided information about the review and development of new visions, mission and strategic goals and that all employees were offered opportunities to be included in these discussions. The research identified that focus groups were convened to discuss these matters; however it was also revealed that many of the focus groups were of selected key employees. The intent by senior management for these key employees to further communicate down the line to their employees was identified by senior management as an expectation of their role in the focus groups.
One of the many significant issues identified in the data related to the strategic plan for the zoo. The plan contains thirteen goals that don’t appear to be well communicated to employees. The poor or negligible awareness of informants in relation to the new visions, mission statements and strategic goals, indicated that the processes for consultation and any resulting discussions were either not communicated or were communicated poorly.
Leadership – skills, conflict and communication
The case study data reflected that leadership skill levels were less than optimum and were contributing to; poor communication, to conflict between staff, were effecting day to day operations and contributing to low levels of knowledge about the zoo’s vision, mission and strategic goals.
The lack of management training was identified as a significant issue and was particularly of concern by informants who were in new roles without formalised job descriptions. All informants acknowledged that the provision of training in leadership and communication skills was poor and that opportunities for training were limited.
The data identified that leadership in the zoos was viewed negatively as a result of:
- the restructure being poorly implemented through lack of any change management plan,
- failure of the consultative process as a result of poor communication and;
- poor leadership skills particularly, but not exclusively, amongst the middle management employees.
With rare exception the research results indicated that rather than the managers and supervisors being incapable of performing in their roles, the failures were of the organisation to effectively provide the information, training and resources for them to proficiently perform in their roles.
Failure to provide clear job descriptions and define reporting relationships and job delineation was identified throughout the research data as effecting the communication of information within the organisation.
The data also identified that there was a failure to deal with conflict between employees in a timely matter, and in some cases such conflicts were not dealt with at all. The failure to deal with these conflicts was identified in the data as affecting the reliability, trust and integrity of management held by employees.
Trust and Integrity
A lack of trust by middle managers and non-supervisory staff in management and integrity of management communication was identified in the research data.
The data and the literature both indicated that management communication, leadership style and performance affect the way employees view the integrity of the organisational overall. Incongruence between rhetoric and behaviour from management has been identified by employees as contributing to this lack of trust in management.
Rhetoric and Behaviour
The research data also identified that employees have observed a disparity between the rhetoric used by management and the actual reality of the situation that management refer to. This rhetoric may include the way words or meanings and explanations are espoused by management to influence the perceptions of those receiving the information. Omission of facts and a failure by management to engage in complete openness and frankness are also identified by employees as contributing to a lack of trust and integrity in management communication. The reliability of management behaviour and in some cases the lack of management action has been highlighted in the data.
The data from this case study and the literature review, with respect to trust and integrity of management by employees within the zoo indicates that there is need to work on communication honesty, rhetoric and associated behaviors, and actions to effect improvements in this area.
Knowledge of the organisation and its missions by employees
The case study data identified that the knowledge of the zoo’s vision, mission and strategic statements and goals is poorly assimilated, and that the vision and mission statements were confused with the core pillars and roles of zoos by all middle management and non-supervisory informants. Additionally, the expression of the zoo vision, mission and strategic statements and goals by the majority of informants was varied and often expressed in very generic terms, although some informants were able to support their comments using examples drawn from the zoo programs and activities.
The lack of knowledge of the vision and mission statements and the inability to express them clearly was evident in both management and non management employees, implying that the ability to communicate and transfer knowledge through the structure by the leaders is impaired.
Baron (2006) identified the enabling of employees to understand the big picture of an organisation through the organisation’s vision, mission and strategies as an essential part of increasing or maintaining employee engagement. All employees had their own view of the organisation’s vision and missions; however whatever they perceived them to be, their views did not appear to significantly affect either their performance or their engagement within the organisation. The data identifies that other issues outlined in this research had a much more significant effect on employee engagement than did their knowledge of the organisation’s vision and missions.
Marketing and Commercial Services
This section was not dealt with as a separate section in the research or the dissertation but is significant enough to include it in this summary. The issues identified have been covered across the other major themes identified in the research.
All employees identified that marketing and commercial services were an essential part of a zoo operation and contributed to the financial well-being of the organisation, although often the extent of the contribution could not be well-defined by the informants.
An issue of concern identified in the data by middle management and non supervisory employees was the prominence given to the commercial and marketing imperatives and activities that often adversely affect the day to day operation of the zoo’s Life Sciences Division. The senior management informants were aware of and regretted the impacts on life sciences activities, however they viewed the commercial and marketing imperatives and activities as high priority essential functions of the zoo to support and sustain the zoos.
Senior management recognised that marketing activity in particular caused some animosity by life sciences employees to the marketing department. This animosity was caused by impromptu requests for assistance in marketing and public relations activity, and in not fully informing animal departments about the programs and activities the marketing and public relations departments were running. These issues are not only connected directly to the quality and extent of communication between the departments, but to the resourcing and structural issues that act as barriers to communication competence.
The data obtained from middle management and non-supervisory employees suggests concern by them that the zoo’s commercial imperatives were taking a more prominent role in the zoo’s operation than the core pillars. The need to reconcile and communicate a balance between the core pillars and the commercial and marketing issues is a significant factor reflected in the data.
Additionally, the data, from middle management and non-supervisory employees in particular, identified the important role of marketing and public relations and education departments in getting out the messages about zoos and conservation issues. There was some concern that the messages often centered on soft and cuddle newsworthy items rather than being an advocate for the harder messages about extinction, conservation of the natural world and environment related issues.
Analysis of the research data identified that middle management and non-supervisory informants displayed a lack of clarity or ability to articulate this big picture and to reconcile the role of commercial and marketing imperatives.
Additionally, responses by informants indicate that a silo effect exists between zoo departments and is exacerbated by poor communication competence and in particular communication between life sciences staff and other zoo departments.
This research has identified that communication is the heart and soul of the organisation. Communication infiltrates every relationship between employees, between employees and management, between departments and between the organisation and its many and varied stakeholders. Failures in communication within or to any one of these organisational sectors can have implications for the others and can cascade and escalate through them. Excellence in internal business communication requires significant levels of skill and well developed processes to maintain communication competence.
Communication affects the quality of trust in management by employees, and visa versa. The integrity of a group of people or of individuals rests on their skills and ability to be honest, open and reliable in their communication rhetoric and to demonstrate the same qualities in their behaviour. The congruence between rhetoric and observable behaviours is critical to the level of trust held in the communicator by those communicated too.
Communication is complex and contains both soft elements, such as the skills of employees and managers to communicate with one another, to plan and implement communication strategies within the organisations structure and hierarchical systems; and also the hard elements such as publications, notice boards, electronic media, and meetings. Failure in any one of these areas can have cascading affects on the others.
Communication has been identified in this research and supported by the literature as effecting organisational culture, organisational climate and employee engagement. Without doubt, communication is the most significant and critical element in the effectiveness of an organisation.
Improving the quality of communication competence, and resourcing internal communication adequately using multiple channels of communication will contribute significantly to employee engagement and the organisation’s effectiveness.
This research and much of the literature reviewed has identified that elements such as structure, leadership, the role of individuals, groups and subcultures, communication media, technology, learning and training, motivation, personal attributes, conflict in the workplace, job design, and organisational change, to mention just a few all have one common element; it is communication.
The literature identifies that to have an effective organisation, internal communication must be viewed as the key to achievement. Internal communication often is identified as a small segment in each individual element or activity within the organisation and rarely as the all encompassing driver of them all; however, this research clearly identifies internal communication as the single most significant element within the zoo and needs to be viewed holistically and assigned to a significant place as the keystone of organisation culture, behaviour and effectiveness.
The research identified all of the issues previously reported in the literature; however the significance of communication as the driver of all other organisational endeavors and elements is not promoted as highly as it should be. Internal communication is of such significance that organisations should elevate communication advocacy and management, within its own right, to its highest level within the organisation (the senior management team).
While this research is by no means a complete view of the role of internal communications in the effectiveness of organisations or of zoos, it is an opportunity to identify and absorb some of insights provided by the collection and analysis of this case study data.
The research also identified that dysfunction in communication competence is in part a result of assumptions that the current processes and systems for communicating within the zoo were functional and there was no internal audit to determine the effectiveness or other wise of communication competence.
The research findings, based on the one case study is in every aspect able to be transferable not only to other zoos but to a wider business audience. Internal communication is the key to organisational success and employee engagement and must receive the significant status and attention it deserves.
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