Your Workforce: Communicate like a Startup Even in a Corporate Cubicle



Communication is the most important tool and problem for companies. You can have the best ideas and the best team members in the world, but without communication and coordination, nothing gets built/made/developed.


Startups are (in)famous for having “better” communication. The environment is more intimate. Your boss personally hired you, instead of HR. There are no cubicles, only wide-open spaces with mashed-together desks. Architecturally, culturally, startups breed communication; too much so, some argue. Critics argue all those beers in the fridge (not to mention the un-tucked button downs) will lead to frat-house culture that will ultimately encourage more laze than work.


Large companies, by virtue of bulk, need to be more structured and regulated. The advantage of grand scale and resources comes with the disadvantage of being overwhelmed. The only way to manage greatness is to have structure. The problem is, too often, the right talent is working on the right task. Or worse, Person A has the solution to Person B’s problem, but for a variety of reasons—office politics, office resources, no awareness—Person A never communicates to Person B, and Person B wastes excess time and effort. People slip through the cracks in a multi-thousand-employee organization, sometimes willingly, often not.


Some of these problems can’t be fixed with a wave of a magical wand. But there are easy steps one can make that will take you in the right direction.

  • Insist upon a common language.  A lot of people know that when Carlos Ghosn first assumed leadership of Nissan in 1999, he insisted all high-level meetings be conducted in English, regardless whether the participants were from French Renault or Japanese Nissan. Classic Harvard Business School case. But did you know he also commissioned a dictionary? The dictionary was short, about 100 words, and they included multilingual translations of terms such as “commitment”, “authority”, “objectives”. This dictionary became the standard for internal communication, so regardless of personal background and mother tongue, everyone was expected to understand exactly what their bosses and peers were communicating.More likely than not, your company doesn’t have a multilingual problem. Nevertheless, can you be sure that your employee understands when his manager “priority target”, “major commitment”? How much of a priority? How much of a commitment? Is this priority more important than that commitment?Note: this problem seems doubly virulent in Silicon Valley, where people make money by being vague and hiding behind smokes and mirrors.
  • Assume the right attitude­­­. Yes, there are some people who are looking to skiv by with minimum work. But most people genuinely want fulfilling, engaging employment, and they’ll respond readily to your sincerity, once they overcome their initial skepticism. That being said, when you say you’re listening, truly listen. If you botch up that first conversation—like texting and doing the sleepy nod right after saying “I totally want your feedback”—your peer/report will never try again. If you botch up the second conversation, she/he will write you off as a fluke. You have to be consistent and earn a reputation of trust.
  • Don’t force communication. We’ve all been to our fair share of corporate seminars/events/luncheon share sessions. We’ve all felt that prickling awkwardness on the back of our necks. The forced laughter, the smothered yawns. On paper, top-down approaches to communication works. Host weekly share sessions! Brainstorm lunches every third Thursday! Have a bulletin board fair every quarter, so employees can feel like science fair students again! Isn’t that fun. Unfortunately, we humans are not robots, and there are few things people like less than being prodded to do something, as if we are children. Just because we’ve left the classroom behind doesn’t mean we like being chained to a play-nice-and-participate activity. We adults are also uniquely suspicious of what seems to good to be true. Communicate? Volunteer ideas? Grow in ways beyond horizontal? (or vertical, if you’re male and under 25.)Communication and participation is best grown organically. Start with a small team. This may require some top-down prodding and reminding, but ideally, once that team becomes that much more closely knit and productive, other teams will notice and begin copying their communication tactics and customs.