As a digital employee communication platform, our mission is to ensure that all employees have knowledge to be inspired to do great work every day. But why, exactly is access to information so important? Today, we’re talking to Dr. Wendi Adair, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Adair is also the director of the Culture at Work Lab at the University of Waterloo, and is the co-founder of icEdge, a communication assessment and empowerment tool for organizational development.

We sat down with Dr. Adair to learn about the psychology of employee communication, what uncertainty does to deskless and frontline employee well-being, how we can boost retention, and why more information makes employees do better. 

What does information – or a lack of information – do to a person’s mental and emotional well-being? 

Wendi Adair: Information is power. If you have information, it makes you feel capable and able to do what you need to do. It makes you feel able to help other employees. And that gives you a sense of well-being. We talk about it as power, but it’s really feelings of capability and competence and confidence. 

And then on the flip side is when you don’t have enough information. So maybe there’s something about your role that’s ambiguous. You don’t know exactly how you’re supposed to go about doing a certain procedure or task. Or maybe you have role conflicts – you have different supervisors asking you to attend to different things and you haven’t been given clear instructions on how to prioritize. That lack of information leads to feelings of uncertainty. Which leads to stress, and would decrease employees’ psychological well-being.

There are a lot of theories on this – like the AUM Anxiety and Uncertainty Management theory – that explore how we are motivated as humans to feel like we have a good sense of what’s going on. A lot of what our brain is doing is trying to figure out what’s going on around us and find ways to feel like we have a sense of control. Not that we can necessarily control everything around us, but we want to know what to expect. So when there are feelings of uncertainty or ambiguity, we’re motivated to reduce those feelings.

When we’re not getting enough information, when that uncertainty kicks in, what exactly is happening to our brains? 

If you’re experiencing uncertainty, that is going to create a stress response. That can be anything from minor impacts, like your heart’s beating a little bit faster, or your palms are getting a little sweaty, to a more serious sort of panicky, fight-flight kind of stress response. And employees who are chronically feeling uncertainty at work could be experiencing chronic stress, and we know that chronic stress over a long time has massive impacts on psychological as well as physical health.

In unprecedented times like these, should organizations share what little information they have, or should they wait until they have more info?

It’s always better to give more information. Which, you know, if it’s a big corporation, definitely makes people nervous because they don’t want to put anything into writing until they know for sure. 

But I would say that any kind of a message is valuable. Even just noting awareness of the instabilities we’re currently facing, and that the organization is committed to figuring out the best way that they can manage and maintain their employees’ well-being. It doesn’t have to be really specific. Just reaching out and making that connection actually can go a long way.

How can organizations improve the overall effectiveness of their employee communication? 

So what we say when we’re teaching effective communication in the workplace is that clarity is really important. Try to keep it as concise as possible. 

And then respect – there’s got to be that interpersonal element to it. So whatever the message is, start with some kind of little greeting. Those are the little things that in corporate communication people aren’t going to do naturally because it’s all about the message, it’s about the task, it’s not about the socio-emotional connection. But the socio-emotional connection is what helps employees connect with an organization and foster loyalty and commitment.

We’ve known for decades that it’s not just about, you know, how many widgets you make. It’s about creating a good work experience; it is about humanizing it. So there’s got to be attention to that interpersonal respect. We call it socio-emotional communication. 

What can organizations do to boost retention on some of the information they’re sharing? 

From the cognitive side, there really is no such thing as multitasking. Unless it’s a totally automatic cognitive process like walking, anything else that demands our attention, we can only attend to one thing at a time. So what that says for organizations is that it’s important to make time for employees to have opportunities to communicate and get information and ask questions and get feedback. It’s not going to be as effective if they’re getting a massive update that they’re supposed to read while they’re doing their job. It’s going to be more effective if they are allowed, permitted, encouraged to take time to read and absorb. 

What about feedback? How can it mitigate – or compound – these feelings of uncertainty for deskless and frontline workers? 

Everyone wants to feel heard, and feel like they are connected to others. So in a grocery store or restaurant, people are going to be interacting regularly. But in, say, a car factory where the distance between people on the line can be half a block long, you might not have that sort of interpersonal connection as part of your daily work routine. And people need that. People need that and want that. They want to feel heard and they want to know that they’ve not only been heard but they were understood.  

In industrial organizational psychology, we talk about psychological safety. That is when employees feel that they are secure enough in their job, their work environment, and with their colleagues at work that they can speak up if they think something could be done differently or if they have dissatisfaction about something. That sense of psychological safety, that their voice is valued and they’re not going to be punished for saying something…that is something that all organizations should foster. And that has a lot to do with leadership, organizational culture and, of course, communication.

It’s also really important to make sure employees know what the norms are for both receiving feedback and giving feedback. What is appropriate if they get a message and they want to give some feedback? Do they just send a message to their direct supervisor? Do they reply to all 100,000 employees that got the message?

If the channels – if the processes and the channels are made clear, then the communication can happen. But when people don’t know, that’s just feeding more into the uncertainty, and then they’re not going to ask questions and they’re not going to give or seek feedback. And that’s when there’s going to be a disconnect.

Why does more information make employees do better? 

There’s this thing in psychology that we call the common knowledge effect. Basically anytime you get people together, and a communication has been sent out, people start talking about it. And what they do is they share information that others have already shared. 

So the example that often comes up in research is solving a murder mystery. You have a group of people, and everyone gets a different set of information, and then they come together and they have to solve a case. And what happens is someone will share some information. Well I heard that John was not even near the scene of the crime on Saturday night. And then, Oh yeah, I have that information too. John was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Then, Oh yeah. I have information that John was with his children that night or whatever. People tend to narrow their conversation to focus on information that they have in common – even though we know that in terms of making good decisions, solving problems, coming up with creative solutions or innovations, it’s the unique information that is key. 

There are lots of reasons that people don’t share unique information. One is that everyone is rushing and you don’t want to be the person who raises your hand. There’s also pressure for conformity. You want to agree with what everyone else is saying. You don’t want to be the person who stands out or thinks differently. And then we have, especially in a group setting, trying to reach a course of action. We know it’s going to be hard to reach consensus so we want to just kind of move towards that. We don’t want to keep bringing up pieces of information that might derail the path to the decision.

And so what the common knowledge effect means in a workplace setting is that if there’s a piece of information that one employee has that could lead to some sort of a better way of doing something, or could alert someone to something bad that’s going to happen down the road…that information is unlikely to be shared, unless there are procedures in place to encourage it. Town halls, forums, discussion boards, surveys – places where the organization overtly encourages employees to share. Then you might get that information. It’s related to psychological safety, too – people speaking up. But you need to kind of have that channel in place, otherwise it just won’t happen.

Thanks to Dr. Adair for her insights on employee communication! For more on her work, check out the Culture at Work Lab at the University of Waterloo and icEdge.