The Goldilocks Rule

Subtlety has its place in writing, of course. Specifically, it has its place in literature, where it’s often agreed that the more interpretation possible, the better the work. But subtlety has no place in employee communications. And it certainly has no place in “great place to work” applications. At least, not in the actual part you write down.

If you’re working on the latter right now, do yourself a favor and think in terms of Dick and Jane, not Virginia Woolf.

This is not, of course, because the judges read at a first-grade level. It’s just that they’ve got a job to do and to do it they need information. The last thing you want to do is make them read between the lines. (Or worse, read your mind.)

This may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I’m constantly seeing Great Place to Work submissions—and myriad other “best employer award” submissions—that omit the most important facts.

Here’s how it works: You set out to answer a bunch of open-ended questions about your work environment and culture. You’ve got a good company that works hard to support its employees, so you know you have a shot. You reach the question about how well management listens. Easy! First, you assure the reader that management does, indeed, listen. Then, you mention an event in which management listened. “Done!” you think, and move on to the next question.

But you’ve left out the most important part. The part that describes how management listens. The part that all but proves management listens.

For example, lots of companies have town halls. In some, leaders show up, make speeches, provide prepared answers to a few questions that have been submitted in advance, and leave. In others, leaders invite discussion, candidly answer questions from the floor, promise to personally provide an organization-wide answer to any emailed questions that should follow, and ask what else employees need. Do you see why it may not be enough just to say you have town halls?

Or say you have a system for employees to submit suggestions. Great. You write that down. But do employees know about it? Do they use it? And if they do, what happens then? Does anyone respond to their suggestions? Have any suggestions actually led to changes in the way things are done? That’s the kind of information that demonstrates you’re a company that listens.

In some ways, writing about management communications is relatively easy. Other kinds of questions actually do require some subtlety—not, as I said, in your writing, but in the way you think about your response. Maybe you have an organization with a real sense of mission—employees are passionate about what they do and feel they are making a difference. You can’t convey this by simply stating it’s the case. You can’t convey it by copying out your mission statement.  (Although you probably should do both these things.) Somehow, you’ve got to show that employees feel that way. This can be tough, but there are several ways you can approach it. Maybe you’ve got quotes from employees about how they feel. Maybe you’ve got quotes from customers about the level of committed service they received. Maybe you’ve got stories about employees going the extra mile—demonstrating by their actions that they care more about their mission than their job description.

Connecting the dots in this way is critical. But it’s equally important not to be distracted by some dot that has no business being there. According to my secondary sources, it was Chekhov who said: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In other words, include the details that make your point—any other details are a distraction.

For instance, if you’re describing a policy supportive of employees, you’ll want to say how it works and who it benefits. You might have some statistics on usage, or feedback on how helpful it’s been. But you don’t have to go into details about how employees go about signing up for it, or include fine print from your legal department about the occasional exception to the policy. The extra detail just confuses the message, requiring the reader to figure out what matters and what doesn’t—a variation on having to read between the lines.

Which brings us to what I’ve just dubbed the Goldilocks rule: Good communications have not too little, not too much—but just the right amount of information.  Apply this to your “great place to work” submission, and at very least you’ll ensure you’ve gotten your message across.

Thinking ahead to benefits open enrollment? Ask me how I can help you make it easy.

To my loyal readers: sorry my posts have been a bit less frequent lately. It’s busy season here! Be sure to click on “Follow” to be notified when I next manage to post.

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