You probably played the game of telephone as a kid or in a team-building offsite. And it usually results in some memorable misquotes. That’s the idea of the game, right? Once you get to the last person, the message you started with has been changed into something almost entirely unrecognizable. But this phenomenon isn’t confined to this game. It’s playing out in your company right now. This game of telephone is really cascading communications—where you have to rely on passing messages down through multiple levels just to reach your frontline teams. But we must invest in better channels to improve workplace comms, or we risk the costs of poor communication in our companies.
What is Cascading Communications?
Cascading communications, also sometimes called top down communication, is the process of getting a message from the top of a company down to the bottom of the organization to your hourly or entry-level workers.
Companies use this cascade method of communication for a few key reasons:
- The company wants to ensure each level of leadership is aware of the message, what the talking points are, and why it matters before it makes it down to their direct reports. This ensures that all people managers are prepared to answer their team’s questions and address any concerns.
- The company does not have a way to reach hourly or deskless employees directly. It’s often the case that a company’s frontline workers don’t have access to the intranet, email, or collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams. Without these common channels, many companies can struggle to push messages to this type of employee, so they need to cascade communication to them instead.
What is an Example of Cascading Communications?
So, what does cascade communication look like in action?
Think of your third shift in the manufacturing plant or your overnight ER nurses. These employees are deskless and maybe have access to a shared kiosk or computer. So, they mainly learn about important company updates directly from their manager.
These employees likely have a shift meeting at the start of their shift. And it’s up to their manager to share the key updates for the day or week at that meeting.
The way cascading communication works is that the executive leadership team shared a key policy change with their direct reports who shared it with their mid-level managers (your shift supervisor), who now shares it with the hourly employees on the overnight shift.
At larger or more complex companies, there may be even more layers that the message has to go through to make it from the “top” to the “bottom.”
What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Cascade of Communication?
The main advantages of relying on cascading communications are that:
- Managers get advanced notice. Instead of a message being blasted to everyone all at once, your managers get a heads up before their teams find out.
- The message can be targeted to each audience. Internal comms teams can carefully curate each internal message to the audience. Your senior leaders might need a very different level of detail than your people managers, and this method lets you alter the talking points at each level of the business.
- It gives you a way to reach everyone. At companies without the right employee communications channels, cascading comms gives you a way to connect with your hardest to reach team members.
But there are also many disadvantages of cascading messages, which is why we call them “tin-can comms.”
- Cascading comms is like a high-stakes game of corporate telephone. The cascade method might work great in theory, but in practice, there are a lot of ways this can go wrong.
- If a leader misunderstands the message, they might share the wrong information with the next link in the chain.
- A manager might take it upon themselves to “edit” the carefully constructed message that internal comms gave them.
- Not all managers are equally effective at communicating with their direct reports.
- Managers are incredibly busy and putting all the weight of communicating on them is a big burden on top of their other responsibilities.
- It’s not measurable. Verbal communication between groups can’t be measured. You can’t even verify if they shared the message unless you ask each team. This makes it inferior to other methods of direct communication (like employee apps), where you can measure opens and even track who opened each message.
The Case Against a Cascading Communication Strategy
Because not all frontline managers are great communicators, we need to pivot.
We aren’t necessarily suggesting that you should stop using the cascade to share messages at your company…but it shouldn’t be the only way you share messages with your deskless workforce.
Instead of only cascading communication, invest in the right mobile-first communication channels for your deskless teams. Use those channels to share important information with your workforce and then use the cascade model to help leaders reinforce the message and answer questions.
The Cost of Poor Workplace Communications
So, what’s at stake here?
When we ineffectively communicate—or fail to communicate altogether—the financial costs are staggering:
- A survey of companies with 100,000 employees reported an average loss of $62.4 million each year based on inadequate communication. With even companies of 100 employees averaging losses of nearly half a million every year.
- Other research has found that miscommunication costs about $5200 per year, per employee.
But poor workplace communication doesn’t just have financial impacts. It can also hurt workplace culture, team morale, and retention. Ineffective communication also increases anxiety at work, leading to employee burnout. Over time, this degrades employee engagement levels and the customer experience.
How to Avoid “Tin-Can” Workplace Comms
At theEMPLOYEEapp, we know that not being able to reach your entire workforce directly contributes to the cost of miscommunication. You set yourself up for failure if you rely on cascading communication through untrained managers.
This has to stop.
Here’s what you can do about it.
1. Use Mobile to Communicate Directly
For our clients, mobile has elevated their workplace communications and ended their reliance on the “tin-can.” Introducing a direct channel bypasses the cascade method by delivering critical messages directly to their workforce on their mobile devices. No more static, mixed messages, or personal interpretation of the messages by the manager.
Finding that clarity was key for our client Kreg Tool:
“We had daily start of shift meetings where information was shared with plant employees, but depending on who was delivering that message, we couldn’t guarantee they were communicating the appropriate information in the way it needed to be received.” — Melany Stonewall, Kreg Tool Company
2. Audit Existing Workplace Communications
Breaking the cycle of tin-can comms also starts with an effective comms audit. This exercise will show you just how much you rely on the cascade of messages in your company. And then you’ll be able to plot out the messages that your frontline teams need to receive directly.
A critical step in this process is to consider your audience’s needs. Do your managers need better talking points for their shift meetings? Would your hourly workers benefit from more videos from senior leaders catered to them and their roles? Look at your existing messages, cadence, and channels and determine how you could be better at directly reaching and targeting each group. Using our internal comms audit guide and template can help you start this process.
3. Train Your Managers
Managers aren’t going anywhere. Employees still trust managers and rely on them for information. Auditing your comms channels and introducing new ones that are more accessible will help. But you also need to invest in manager comms training. Companies that train their managers can improve engagement.
Want to learn more about our internal comms tool? Request a demo today.
About the Author
Michael Marino is the Vice President of Marketing where he oversees the creation and execution of theEMPLOYEEapp’s marketing programs. Before joining the team, Mike held marketing leadership positions in both the B2B and DTC spaces in channels that include media, manufacturing, and professional services. Mike is passionate about demand generation, mar-tech, and being able to create campaigns that connect with Internal Comms audiences.
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