'The Irrigation Effect': Why Your Employees Aren't Getting the Message

'The Irrigation Effect': Why Your Employees Aren't Getting the Message
Image credit: Elliott Brown | Flickr

We all love a good story -- so much that when there isn’t one, we sometimes create one. And this happens in the workplace all the time. When information needed to do their jobs is missing, employees don’t simply shrug their shoulders and carry on. They create their own stories.

We take action based on the stories we create. The trouble, of course, is that these stories may be wrong. Yet, many organizations are filled with employees who simply don’t have the full and accurate stories (information) they need to be successful. This information may take the form of company performance, job expectations, customer requirements, market information, new policies, successes and failures or details on a new product release, to name just a few.

We call this lack of critical information the "irrigation effect." Picture a field of grain or corn. As water enters canals and irrigation furrows, crops thrive. Where the water lacks sufficient force to make it to the end of the rows of crops, they will wither and die. In fact, this effect is so evident in drier states that the crops at the beginning of the rows may produce as much as two to three times the harvest reaped from the crops at the end of the rows.

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Communication is like water: It tends to stop -- or at least become too dispersed to be effective -- before it makes it to the end of the rows.

During the latter half of 2014, Management Consulting firm DecisionWise analyzed over 1 million survey responses to questions related to effectiveness of organizational communication. When employees were asked whether they had the information they needed to do their jobs effectively, more than 90 percent of executives and senior managers indicated that the level of communication they receive about important information impacting the organization is appropriate.

This statistic makes sense, given that they are close to (and even may be) the source of that information. However, as that water flows downhill, just 78 percent of mid-level managers reported having the communication and information they need to be successful and just 68 percent of line-level employees responded positively to these questions.

Does this mean that nearly one-third of all employees are creating stories and are less effective than they could be? Perhaps.  And that can be dangerous or, at the very least, result in inefficiencies and disengagement.

While those in the C-suite may think they are communicating (and perhaps they are), employee survey responses are clearly telling us the water simply isn’t making it to the end of the rows. The water is being blocked before it reaches its destination.

Breaking down barriers that clog the flow results in greater organizational vigor, more engaged employees, and more effective organizations. Barriers take on multiple forms, but we find three especially prevalent in most organizations:

Technological barriers 

This could include email, social media, company intranets and other systems designed for communicating information. Technology is powerful in facilitating the flow of information. However, we cannot presuppose that “if we build it, they will come.” Don’t assume that because the information exists in bits and bytes (email, social media, company intranets, policy manuals, etc.), that employees will rush to access it. Just because the water is there, doesn’t mean the employees know how (or want) to access it. More often than not, we need to make a conscious effort to deliver the water to them.

Related: How to Find Out What's Really Happening in Your Organization

Structural barriers

The further employees are from the source, the less likely they are to receive the information. Structural barriers include such factors as complicated organization structures and levels, geographical locations and cultures, varying job types and differing work schedules (think day shift versus night shift). While these may be necessary, our communication needs to take these into consideration.

Human barriers

Many leaders are surprised to learn that they are the barriers.  We assume that we’ve communicated effectively when, in reality, the information we share is sparse, insufficient, infrequent, or simply inaccurate. Keep in mind that between the source of the water and the end of the row, the water may have to pass through multiple channels before it arrives.  If managers don’t make a conscious effort to facilitate the flow of information, rather than obstruct it, vital communication is likely to dissipate before reaching those parts of the field where it is needed most.

So, next time you’re wondering why the crops seem to be malnourished, you might want to clear the barriers before burning down the field. 

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