Go to top of page

Workplace communication

Editor's note to readers

Welcome to the third edition of Human Capital Matters for 2015—the digest for leaders and practitioners with an interest in human capital and organisational capability. This edition focuses on Workplace Communication.

Human Capital Matters seeks to provide APS leaders and practitioners with easy access to the issues of contemporary importance in public and private sector human capital and organisational capability. It has been designed to provide interested readers with a monthly guide to the national and international ideas that are shaping human capital thinking and practice. The inclusion of articles is aimed at stimulating creative and innovative thinking and does not in any way imply that the Australian Public Service Commission endorses service providers or policies.

Workplace communication covers a very broad range of communication.

The first article reviews the history of strategic communication. It highlights the importance of communication and its foundations to a range of issues including employee engagement, trust, onboarding, retention, change management, branding, and so forth.

The second article refers to advice by the Victorian Public Sector Commission on the important role of communication in times of organisational change.

The third article explores the role of the use of emoticons in workplace emails. While writers are generally advised to limit their use of emoticons in formal writing their use has been growing.

The fourth article reports research findings about intercultural communication in multinationals. It is reported that many Asian scholars have criticised some of the predominant models in intercultural communication (ICC) for being Eurocentric/Anglocentric. Research shows that when it comes to ICC research, it is still a fact that Western paradigms dominate, even when non-Western contexts are being analysed.

The fifth article contains a link to a recent book on the theory and practice of corporate communication. The book provides a comprehensive guide to corporate communication. It explores the historical development of communication within organisations, describes why corporate communication emerged, and demonstrates the importance of corporate communication to contemporary organisations.

Thank you to those who took the time to provide feedback on earlier editions of Human Capital Matters. Comments, suggestions or questions regarding this publication are always welcome and should be addressed to: humancapitalmatters [at] apsc.gov.au. Readers can also subscribe to the mailing list through this email address.

APS Human Capital Matters: Workplace communication

Dr Bruce K Berger (2014). READ MY LIPS: Leaders, Supervisors, and Culture are the foundations of strategic employee communication

The early history of strategic employee communication dates back more than 80 years, when researchers at the Western Electric Company in Chicago discovered that a worker's performance improves not because of workplace variables, but rather because of interaction with employees.

Two decades later, Donald Pelz (1952) revealed an iron-strong link between employee productivity, and informed and communicative supervisors. At a time when leadership studies emphasized style above all else, Pelz found the most important feature for supervisors wasn't style, but rather power—defined as having a voice with, and being listened to by executives, and being empowered with strategic information. Supervisors with power who shared information regularly with employees produced an increase in job performance and satisfaction, the so-called "Pelz Effect".

Effective employee communications are the result of many interrelated factors—research, executive support, employees' communication needs, communicator capabilities, communication climate, channel availability and use, measurement, organisational culture and history, messaging and listening, and employee empowerment, among others. However, research over the years has consistently highlighted the crucial importance of three factors or foundations in effective communications—leaders, front-line supervisors, and organisational culture. This article examines these issues and argues they are antecedents for successful programs dealing with many communication issues—employee engagement, trust, onboarding, retention, change management, branding, and so forth.

Editor's Note to Readers

Victorian Public Sector Commission (2015) What does good communication mean during organisational change?

It is argued that communication is a key role for organisational leaders during a time of change. Repeating the same information over and over increases the chance for people to hear, understand and accept the information when they are ready to do so.

A marathon metaphor has been used to describe the process. Senior leaders move across the starting line first and are the first to deal with their own responses to change and feelings of uncertainty or loss. As things progress, middle managers hear about the change goals and are given the opportunity to contribute to the plans and actions. In other words, they now get to cross the starting line and start participating in the change.

Finally, staff hear about the change and eventually they get to cross the starting line. However, by the time they do so, the organisation's leaders are already well ahead. They may be wondering, somewhat impatiently, why all the major things they had envisioned have not yet happened. After all, they have been running for ages.

However, unlike a marathon runner, the senior leader's aim is not to get to the finishing line first. Instead, it is to make sure that the whole pack is moving in the same direction and that the distance between the front and the rear of the pack never becomes too great. Often this means that leaders have to slow down and wait for others to catch up. Sometimes it means visiting the back of the pack to see how everyone is going there.

The article emphasizes that communication is not about talking. It is about developing a common understanding through a conversation. Not everyone takes in or thinks about information in the same way. Some staff may require time and coaching in order to move from habitual ways of thinking, to thinking about the organisation as a large complex adaptive system.

The article also emphasises the need to ask questions and listen. Just as leaders should take every opportunity to explain the change, they should also take every opportunity for people (staff and other key stakeholders) to tell them about how they see the change. This process provides evidence of any misunderstanding, confusion or resentment.

Many people find that visual images help them understand ideas better. In a change context, visual representations of the change goals can provide tangibility to what might otherwise be a vague or abstract concept.

Editor's Note to Readers

Skovholt, K., Grønning, A. and Kankaanranta, A. (2014), The Communicative Functions of Emoticons in Workplace E-Mails: :-)† Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19: 780–797. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12063

The researchers present emoticons as visual representations of writers' emotions. They argue that the emoticons in authentic workplace e-mails do not primarily indicate writers' emotions. Rather, they provide information about how an utterance is supposed to be interpreted. They argue research shows that emoticons function as contextualization cues, which serve to organize interpersonal relations in written interaction. It is alleged that they serve 3 communicative functions. First, when following signatures, emoticons function as markers of a positive attitude. Second, when following utterances that are intended to be interpreted as humorous, they are joke/irony markers. Third, they are hedges: when following expressive speech acts (such as thanks, greetings, etc.) they function as strengtheners and when following directives (such as requests, corrections, etc.) they function as softeners.

Within the last 30 years, emoticons have developed different forms and meanings, and a growing number of forms accompany different types of chat software. Still, using emoticons has traditionally been viewed as a typically teenage phenomenon and has been associated with young people's chat style on the Internet. Emoticons have also been considered superfluous and a waste of bandwidth. Not surprisingly the researchers note that formal guidelines for computer-mediated communication or "netiquettes" advise writers to limit their use of emoticons in workplace communication, mostly because their excessive use may signal emotional instability and a lack of control over one's feelings. Furthermore, the researchers note that such guidelines tend to be normative and coloured by the author's personal values rather than reflecting the actual use and communicative functions of emoticons. In the popular press and media, emoticons are banned by some authors, and praised by others.

 Editor's Note to Readers

Hans J. Ladegaard & Christopher J. Jenks. Language and intercultural communication in the workplace: critical approaches to theory and practice Language and Intercultural Communication,Volume 15, Issue 1, 2015, Published online: 20 Jan 2015

The researchers noted that from multinational corporations to family-owned shops, from language classrooms to outdoor markets, the workplace is fundamental to socialisation. It is not only a site of employment where money is made and institutional roles are enacted through various forms of discourse; but it is also a location where people engage in social actions and cultural practices, from befriending or bullying a colleague to complimenting or gossiping about the boss. In other words, the workplace possesses cultural and linguistic norms and conventions for engaging in work- and non-workrelated activities.

Many Asian scholars have criticised some of the predominant models in intercultural communication (ICC) for being Eurocentric/Anglocentric. Research shows that when it comes to ICC research, it is still a fact that Western paradigms dominate, even when non-Western contexts are being analysed.

A common theme in many research papers is a critique of existing paradigms and analytical frameworks in ICC. Common in most critiques is the claim that existing approaches often do not encompass the lives and experiences of people in multilingual, multicultural (global) workplaces, particularly in Asian and African settings.

The authors conclude that 'Culture' is conceptualised not only as an ever-present influence on our communication and social interaction at work but also as an ever-changing fussy concept, which is constantly being (re)created and negotiated as we communicate with cultural 'others'. Some researchers have reiterated that for minority group members in the workplace, 'culture' is likely to be perceived as a more salient influence. Not until we are 'lost in translation' do we become acutely aware of 'culture' as constituting reality, as something that inevitably constructs in-groups and out-groups and thus potentially jeopardising communication, despite our attempts to engage in dialogue.

Researchers have also emphasised the need to promote less ethnocentric approaches to ICC research. Despite several notable attempts to introduce non-Western approaches to ICC research, the norms for 'good' research, as well as for 'appropriate' communication, are still widely informed by Eurocentric/Anglocentric practices.

Finally the authors remind us that 'an indispensable feature of the intercultural experience is that we refrain from imposing our categories and values on others but instead learn to reconstruct their frame of reference and see them as they see themselves' (emphasis added).

The Special Issue of 'Language and Intercultural Communication' brings a select number of the papers that were presented at the 13th annual conference of the International Association for Languages and Intercultural Communication (IALIC), which held its second conference in Asia at Hong Kong Baptist University, 29 November–1 December 2013. The conference theme was 'Language and Intercultural Communication in the Workplace: Critical Approaches to Theory and Practice'.

Editor's Note to Readers

Cornelissen, J (2014) Corporate Communication: A Guide to Theory and Practice

This book provides a comprehensive guide to corporate communication. It explores the historical development of communication within organisations, describes why corporate communication emerged, and demonstrates the importance of corporate communication to contemporary organisations.

The author suggests the following definition of corporate communication:

Corporate communication is a management function that offers a framework for the effective coordination of internal and external communication with the overall purpose of establishing and maintaining favourable reputations with stakeholder groups upon which the organisation is dependent.

The author argues that corporate communication demands an integrated approach to managing communication. He argues corporate communication transcends the specialities of individual communication practitioners and crosses these boundaries to harness the strategic interests of the organisation. The sustainability and success of the organisation depends on how it is viewed by key stakeholders. Communication is a key part of building, maintaining and protecting such reputations.

The book notes that the stakeholder concept is central to corporate communication. Stakeholders are regarded as any group or individual that can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation's outcomes. Organisations are increasingly recognising the need for a balanced stakeholder management approach that involves communicating with all stakeholder groups on which the organisation depends. Such awareness has stemmed from cases where undue attention given to stakeholder groups has led to crises and severe damage to the organisation concerned.

The stakeholder management model recognises the mutual dependencies between organisations and various stakeholder groups. The interests of all stakeholders are seen as being of some intrinsic value to the organisation.

Editor's Note to Readers

Last reviewed: 
6 June 2018