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High Context Communications – the power of the network

by jcp

By: Nicole Alvino, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, SocialChorus 


At the recent SocialChorus Attune Digital Employee Engagement Summit we were fortunate to have Malcolm Gladwell share some brilliant insights into how we need to lead our growing millennial workforce and the importance of high context communication.

By 2025, 75% of the world’s workforce will be millennials. The consequence of this generational shift means that as leaders we need to be thinking about engagement in a different way. Those of us from the ‘baby boomer’ generation grew up in the traditional hierarchical structure – a decision is made, and then cascaded to the workforce.

Millennials do not tend to work on this hierarchical basis. Everything that they are involved in and motivated by works on a network basis, where power is decentralised, actions are flexible, and there is a staggeringly high level of engagement – where each individual can be part of the conversation. As a result, there is an expectation that they will also have a voice in the workplace.

This expectation of high context communication – which has both feeling and meaning, may be daunting for some leaders. Those who are used to the traditional hierarchical structure may feel anxious at the network approach of inviting the workforce into the conversation.

Of course, a business needs to retain elements of that traditional hierarchy in order to operate, and one of the main concerns about this more ‘open’ approach is that decision-making power will be decentralised, which will ultimately lead to failure to deliver and execute strategy.

However, those who come from the network mindset don’t expect to control the decision-making process – they understand the need for an organisation to have leaders and managers – but they do expect to be involved, listened to. They expect to have a voice.

Rather than trying to avoid the network approach, we should embrace it. Opening up conversations (particularly difficult ones) will not threaten a leader’s authority, it will enhance it. This process of talking about the — process has the potential to be hugely empowering for the whole organisation.

So once leaders have come around to the idea of the network model, how can they then make sure they are able to deliver the high context communication that is expected?

  • The first step is taking the time to understand where this new generation of employees are coming from. That means understanding their needs, what motivates them, and thinking about how we can help them to feel connected to the purpose of the company and their role.
  • As Malcolm so succinctly put it – we need to get rid of the “casual contempt” of those who operate on a different paradigm. After all, it is those that endeavour to learn from those who think differently from them that are often the most successful.
  • Avoid sending out mass communications to all employees and just expecting them to consume it. Take the time to target and personalise communications, and meet employees where they are – giving them the tools, information and resources that enable them to be as effective as they can be in their role.
  • Own the conversation – and then share it. Employees need to hear news from leaders – not on social media. Make sure there are opportunities to respond and share in the process.
  • Democratise communications. In a network, communications do not always have to come from the top – power is pushed out to the edges, and therefore there is a fantastic opportunity for middle and lower managers to play a much bigger role when it comes to communications.

Ensuring that employees feel a sense of belonging and ownership is at the very heart of our SocialChorus mission. Malcolm’s message echoed our ethos – that EVERY employee – regardless of pay grade, role or shift type – deserves a personalised digital experience that meets them where they are with what they need. A big part of this need is to feel heard and engaged in the conversation. The most impactful leaders of the most successful companies in the next two decades will embrace this need and listen and empower their employees.


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