Hierarchy of Communications Needs

You may know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which, in simplified form, posits that our motivations follow a specific pattern and that, until we meet one need, we may not be able to focus on the next.

For example, in the movie, Cast Away, when alone on a deserted island, food and water are Tom Hanks’ first priority, followed by protection from weather and animals; and companionship (the volleyball with the painted face). Next, the need to be competent at something, such as fishing. After all that, attention turns toward the abstract: a higher understanding of life; self-expression. And, eventually, the need to make life better for others (I guess by delivering that FedEx package, but I could be wrong).

When reviewing change management communications, I apply what I call Libby’s Hierarchy of Communications Needs:

Hierarchy of Communications Needs


This hierarchy reduces unnecessary communications and gives essential communications more impact. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid:

1. Does the employee need to know?

On the most basic level, there are two questions to ask yourself: Is this communication necessary to the recipient? And, have I neglected to communicate information that the recipient needs?

Let’s say a manufacturer alerts you to a defective item and asks you to communicate to your stores. It’s worth checking how many stores actually have that item in-stock and targeting those stores with your communication, so you don’t distract the other stores. But you would need to communicate this.

On a secondary level, you have to ask yourself: does the employee need to know right now? Clearly if the defective product I mentioned above endangers the safety of employees, customers, or the company, yes, you need tell them right now. But if it is Friday (in retail, a day that is spent preparing for weekend sales) or the launch date for a huge new initiative or product, and the defective item has been sitting on the shelves for some time and no one noticed, the communication can wait until later.

2. Is it accurate?

Inaccurate communications generate more messages, more distraction, more wasted payroll, and lower productivity. A proofreader can check for some accuracy (by dialing phone numbers, for example); the department that owns the information must verify other kinds of accuracy (such as item numbers).

Going back to our example, if you communicate the item number of the defective item, make sure you get it right. Nothing irritates employees more than being asked to do something urgently then finding out that they can’t do it because you gave them misinformation.

3. Does it answer the questions that the reader will have?

If you don’t know what questions your employees will have, partner with someone who does. You can ask for feedback before distributing messages or afterwards, to support continuous improvement.

The employees might want to know, what is the reason that this item is defective? Will you send me replacements? What should I tell customers who want the item?

4. Does it reflect the reader’s culture?

Do the words speak to the reader (second person; “you”), not about the reader (third person, “the employee”)? Do they reflect the policies, procedures, employee roles and workflow, and how systems work? Do they reflect the lingo used by the reader?

Even little things like saying “employees” when the audience calls themselves “associates” can make the difference between readers embracing, tolerating, or rejecting your communication.

In our example above, if the item is a book, you’ll need to reference the EAN (unique industry-specific item number assigned to a book) vs. SKU (item number assigned by a company).

5. Does it answer Why?

A great communication answers, “Why is this important? Why are you asking me to do this? What’s in it for me?” Making an employee a partner in the strategy produces buy-in for the communication’s content.

Sometimes the Why is implicit – for example, you’ll want to remove an item that’s defective so you don’t sell it. Sometimes you need to be more explicit: replacement items with the same item number are being delivered tomorrow and you will need to pull the defective item today so they don’t get mixed together.

6. Does it grow the understanding of the business?

Good employees want to understand the inside story, where the company is going, learn more about what makes things work. Communications that help employees grow their understanding of the business and make them better at their jobs are more engaging.

Maybe, in this case, you are talking about the sales potential of the defective item.

Do you have to include all five levels in every communication? Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 are essential every time, to prevent later damage control. I believe the importance of questions 5 and 6 increases as the need for buy-in becomes essential to success.

In my mind, the first level is the most critical. I’ve seen absolutely beautiful communications that are accurate, complete, informative, inspiring – and utterly unnecessary, a complete waste of time, and entirely distracting from mission-critical communications going out at the same time. I felt bad when I had to tell someone that we couldn’t allow the distribution of a communication that they had clearly worked really hard on.

What do you think?

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