Most of us have played the gossip game -- where you whisper a phrase or saying to the person next to you at a party. Then, that person whispers what they heard to the next person, and the pattern is repeated as the “supposed” message makes its way around the room. The fun part is when you compare the original saying with the message that was actually heard by the last person. The discrepancies are both humorous and alarming especially when you think about messages that might really matter.

Leaders often face a high-stakes version of the gossip game as they implement change within their organizations. Just like the whispered sayings at a party, corporate communications often become corrupted as they trickle down through the organization.

To illustrate this problem, we sometimes use a farming analogy and say that "the water (or the message) isn’t making it to the end of the row.” My business partner calls this phenomenon the “Irrigation Effect.”

Communication breakdowns are problematic, not only because the messages become distorted, but also because they can create expectation gaps with your employees. When expectation gaps exist, trust is compromised and employee confidence is eroded. Effective leaders do their best to minimize expectation gaps whenever possible, as they realize these gaps have a destructive effect in building the right employee experience.

A key way to combat communication failures is through people analytics and the effective use of pulse surveys or employee sentiment tools. Academic institutions figured out this concept a while back when teachers started using remote control devices to poll their students in real-time to see if concepts were being understood.

Pulse surveys, or employee sentiment tools, are software platforms that allow organizations to administer daily, weekly or monthly surveys in addition to their regularly scheduled, organization-wide surveys.

Typically, pulse surveys are used by HR leaders to get a feel for an organization’s operating climate at any one given moment in time.

As suggested, any business leader can take advantage of these tools to get a feel for how well a key message was received or will be received in the future.

Communication surveys can be timed to guide communications before messages are sent in order to assist in understanding whether messages are being properly received. They can also be conducted after the fact in order to help tweak the change process, when needed.

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Let’s consider a case a study.

Suppose a healthcare organization needs to decrease those instances where a patient accidentally falls. The organization’s leaders have implemented a protocol requiring their staff to assist patients when they leave their rooms. To assess how well this initiative is being followed and understood, the organization's leadership team could conduct a simple pulse survey, asking the following four questions:

  1. How important is the “fall prevention” initiative to our organization? (5: Critically Important, 4: Somewhat Important, 3: When Possible Effort, 2: Just Make an Effort, 1: Not Important, 0: I Do Not Know About This Initiative)
  2. Who is responsible to ensure that falls do not occur? (Stack rank a list of potential groups)
  3. When was the last time the “fall prevention” initiative was discussed within your teams? (5: Today, 4: This Week, 3: Last Week, 4: This Month, 5: Never or Do Not Know)
  4. In your own words, what is the “fall prevention” initiative? (Open comments that are analyzed by a text analytics tool)

After reviewing the survey’s results, management could either reinforce their original message or make corrections to ensure that alignment exists.

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Let’s look at another scenario.

Assume an organization is changing how it handles performance reviews. A single question could be, “Why do we conduct performance reviews?”

A text analytics tool could analyze the responses and then create comment categories and provide management with some pretty interesting insights.

Communication surveys should only take between two to three minutes to complete, but the information is invaluable in knowing how an initiative is being received and implemented.

Although software applications do a good job in trying to minimize survey fatigue and in improving participation through gamification techniques and other strategies, too many pulse surveys will cause both fatigue and a significant drop in participation. Thus, care should be used when considering how often communication surveys are administered.

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Leaders need to deploy surveys carefully and with restraint to ensure these types of surveys retain their effectiveness. Nonetheless, if employees feel that communication surveys are respectful of their time, and they see that meaningful change comes about as a result of the surveys, a culture of turning feedback into results will start to take root within your organization.

Pulse surveys are commonplace within many organizations, and polling your people can be an effective analytics tool. In particular, using pulse surveys to enhance or evaluate corporate communications is one way that forward-thinking leaders are using people analytics to improve leadership, communication and their organizations in general.