The coworker’s communicative role

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.

Sir Richard Branson1

There is a widespread notion that external stakeholders (such as customers, users or the general public) are most important to an organization. They are, of course, important, but it is coworkers who are actually most important to the organization. The previous quote from Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, shows that despite the company's success being characterized by a strong customer focus, coworkers are always put first.

The coworkers’ role in internal communications is of utmost importance to the organization and its success. Coworkers are the ones who need to live up to the expectations of customers and the public. Coworkers are expected to live the brand and honor the promises that the organization makes. It is also coworkers who, in communicating with their colleagues and managers, complete work tasks, create and change organizational culture, share and create new knowledge and contribute to innovation. It can even be said that strategic communication is not undertaken by solely the communication professional. Strategic communication today is something undertaken by all coworkers. In other words, coworkers have a communicative responsibility, but it is rarely recognized or discussed. It is, simply put, taken for granted. It is often both unspoken and unresearched, and coworkers are often given conditions too poor to complete their communicative roles. In contrast with managers, coworkers are rarely given the chance to work on their communicative skills, even though it is they who, through their communication, create the organization.2

In this chapter, we clarify the responsibility held by coworkers for communication, and the responsibility of the organization to listen to coworkers. Coworkers as communicators are an untapped strategic resource in many organizations.

Dare to believe in your coworkers

Coworkership is a concept from leadership research that has been discussed since the 1990s and is seen as a way to create greater commitment and participation among coworkers. As many organizations became flatter and had fewer managers, it became more important that coworkers could also take greater responsibility for their work. In letting coworkers take greater responsibility and giving them more freedom to decide for themselves what to do and how to do it, we abandon the traditional leadership model, wherein the manager has full control and makes all the decisions. In other words, managers need to let go of control and dare to believe in their coworkers.

Coworkership as a leadership ideal can be compared to "management by Perkele," which was coined in a 2001 seminar arranged by Capgemini and Ernst & Young. Management by Perkele refers to the Finnish approach to leadership, which is said to be more effective than its softer Swedish counterpart. According to this model, Finnish leadership demands direct and unconditional obedience, with coworkers not thinking about the consequences of their actions. It leads to unmotivated and disengaged coworkers, a sluggish organization that cannot adapt to change, and not least to a dumb organization, where knowledge is not spread between coworkers. In other words, coworkership means replacing the old view of coworkers as passive and subordinate with a more active, equal view.3

Two variations of coworkership

There are two variants of coworkership outlined by research: the sort that creates autonomous coworkers, and the sort that creates collaborative coworkers.4 The first approach emphasizes the importance of coworkers becoming less dependent on their managers, more autonomous, and “leading themselves” to a greater extent. The second approach to coworkership is about strengthening the relationship between coworkers and managers as well as their joint efforts to help achieve the organization’s goals. Here, you can say that managers and coworkers work hand-in-hand to create some sort of coleadership. Both roles are needed, and they can create better - or worse - conditions for one another, through, for example, how they communicate with each other.

Good relationships give more than influencers

We believe that coworkership is powerful. Many coworkers are smart and engaged, and want the best for their organization. Communicative coworkers who spread the good word about their organization are significantly more authentic and sustainable than influencers, who have become a popular and expensive form of marketing.? Moreover, good relationships between coworkers and customers contribute to increased sales.6 Good relationships are a much more effective form of marketing than are traditional and social media. The prerequisite for committed coworkers who practice collaboration is communication. And well-functioning communication, in turn, requires that top management understands and values an open communication climate where coworkers are allowed and invited to make their voice heard. Both managers and communication professionals have a strong tendency to skip over that step and place too much confidence in technology and digital media itself as a way of improving and making communication in the organization more effective.

There are many opportunities to use digital media when management advocates for an open communication climate (see Chapter 5). Digital media can increase the speed of communication, not least in terms of upward communication from coworkers to the management. Digital media can also improve knowledge sharing between different units in the organization. However, digital media alone cannot change the communication patterns in an organization. Before this can happen, leadership and organizational culture need to change themselves.

Understanding the importance that coworkers have as communication professionals is crucial for creating communicative coworkership. Coworkers are the ones who, to a large extent, create and strengthen the organization’s relationships, brand, trust and reputation. It is therefore of utmost importance that management and the CEO understand this and actively pursue the issue. This sets the tone for the organization and the framework for all work with communicative collaboration. It is then important that the other managers in the organization understand the value of communicative collaboration. Ultimately, this is a question of organizational culture, dominant values and how leadership is exercised in the organization.

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