When the COVID-19 shutdown began in 2020, I took note of an intelligent leader who started producing a series of twice-weekly podcasts. This creative approach kept team members informed and engaged during a disruptive time.
But what happened when this leader continued releasing episodes for months beyond their utility? People stopped listening, either stressed or disinterested, and the leader’s ability to engage his team had waned. Effective communication dissolved into negative overcommunication, a space where no leader can be successful.
We drown each other in communication. Consider that Zoom users spend 3.3 trillion minutes in online meetings annually. During one January 2021 week alone, Slack users exchanged more than 2.2 billion messages. And in 2023, we’re going to send and receive an estimated 347.3 billion emails daily.
So why, amid this overwhelming volume of transmission, do I encourage leaders to overcommunicate? Because, when done properly, overcommunication can be an essential tool to reach and involve team members in our new hybrid workplaces.
“Leaders, it’s time to overcommunicate,” instructs the Society for Human Resource Management.
Proper overcommunication ensures that team members understand a leader’s vision, know where the organization is headed, and feel confident of their place in it.
But leaders who overcommunicate improperly risk distracting, boring, and alienating their teams—or worse, having them tune out to the leader’s message entirely. That threatens to reduce engagement, which reduces productivity.
According to Gallup, businesses with engaged workers generate 23% higher profits than businesses with “miserable” workers. Avoid making your team members miserable. Overcommunicate properly. Here are several suggestions.
What is overcommunication?
The term overcommunication assumes that a normal level of communication exists, which we know is untrue. Is it possible for one email to represent overcommunication while a three-hour webinar doesn’t? Of course, depending on the circumstances.
Sten Hansson, a linguistics professor at the University of Birmingham, wrote an interesting paper exploring how governments might use “calculated overcommunication” to present themselves more positively. In it, he argued that overcommunication is undefinable but not inherently negative.
“It is intuitively impossible to draw a simple universal line between sufficient and redundant, informative and over-informative, or relevant and irrelevant communication,” Hansson wrote, underscoring how leaders can draw their own distinctions. As with art, leaders must know it when they see it.
What is effective overcommunication?
Effective overcommunication is a valuable tool to reach and remind team members about their organization. It reinforces strategy, sustains momentum, and reduces confusion. It also can provide calm during crisis or change, when an information vacuum might lead to anxiety or worse.
As Christy Wyatt, CEO of Absolute Software, said to Fast Company, “People read a lot more meaning into things that you didn’t necessarily intend to have meaning. People will make up stories in the white space.”
Leaders overcommunicate effectively when they deliver clear, consistent messages, even if they feel their voices becoming repetitive. Redundant messaging works, according to a Harvard Business School Study aptly titled It’s Not Nagging.
Overcommunication goes too far, however, when team members become numbed by, resistant to, or confused with the message. Not every team member needs to be part of every meeting or included in every email. I have seen leaders expend far too much of the organization’s time and resources sitting through meetings that add little value.
Ineffective communication is a sign of ineffective leadership, particularly in a remote-work environment. Atlassian found in its Reworking Work study that 46% of employees say it’s more important than ever for leaders to communicate effectively.
Further, a study published in Applied Psychology regarding remote-work challenges during the pandemic concluded that poor communication hindered performance, impaired professional relationships, and increased work stress.
In addition, team members can interpret overcommunication as micromanaging. Southern Illinois University researchers cited micromanaging among the top three reasons employees resign. That drains morale and results in high turnover rates, potentially leading to “exorbitant” costs. Micromanagers often are the worst overcommunicators.
The best ways to overcommunicate
Mix your media, not your messages. Webinars are effective for company-wide town halls, where I conduct business updates. Manage your email usage wisely; it is helpful for real-time updates, but not everyone has email or monitors it consistently.
LinkedIn can be a good forum for public-facing updates. Judy Marks, chairperson and CEO of Otis Elevator Co., for instance, makes it look easy.
I like to schedule “lunch with the boss,” a gathering of six to eight diverse team members to discuss and listen (more on that soon). Meanwhile, Google’s Project Oxygen found that managers who conduct one-on-one meetings with team members rate more favorably than those who don’t.
Leaders should also get comfortable with the asynchronous communication model, prioritizing response time over real time. In an async-first environment, we share information in cloud documents, messaging tools, in-app comments, and email in favor of meetings and time-sapping Slack chats.
Some companies are choosing an async-first model, saying it lowers distractions, raises focus, and increases productivity by not requiring us to communicate constantly. Does it work? A healthcare study at St. George’s University of London concluded that an asynchronous communication model improved clinical communication, making workflows more efficient and potentially improving patient care.
Lastly, to overcommunicate effectively, leaders should remember one more point.
The power of listening
Effective communication, even overcommunication, isn’t about town halls, newsletters, tweets, LinkedIn posts, or Slack channels. It’s about listening to your people to ensure the message is getting through. More important, it’s about playing back what you hear so that team members know you are listening.
In 1957, Harvard Business Review published a study that found we retain half of what we hear. I wonder if that has changed over the past six and a half decades. According to Gallup, just 21% of global employees say they are engaged at work, and 33% say they are thriving, indicating it couldn’t have changed much.
How can we improve those numbers? “[H]elping the world’s workers thrive starts with listening to them,” Gallup suggests.
BetterUp shared the many ways that listening makes leaders better: It provides perspective, demonstrates care, and offers a window into an organization’s reality. We must learn and practice effective listening, a skill that requires us to avoid judgment, pay attention to body language, and save our responses for the end.
Here’s a good exercise. Ask a colleague, “What do you think?” and then wait for the answer.
Ultimately, leaders don’t suffer disengagement because they overcommunicate. They risk disengagement because they overcommunicate improperly.
Your team wants to understand their organization’s mission and values, and the roles they play in achieving them. Give them the tools and information they need to thrive, which might mean occasional reminders.
As this Fast Company report noted, if employees sometimes know what you’re going to say before you say it, consider that a victory. They have received the message.
Robert Logemann is the CEO of Lift Solutions Holdings.