Internal Communications Done Right: 5 Tactics for Effective Engagement With Associates
By Devin Lintzenich, Kerry Price
April 14, 2022 | 6-minute read
Communications Message and Strategy Planning Content Type Article
Associate salary increases have dominated legal industry headlines over the last year and a half. With all the energy and expense law firm leadership is spending on associate salaries, one might think compensation is the most important driver of associate engagement and retention. However, in its 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, Thomson Reuters wisely quoted renown researcher Frederick Herzberg who noted underpaying people creates job dissatisfaction, but compensation itself (even at the right level) does not create satisfaction.
The real drivers of job satisfaction are mastery, autonomy, belonging and purpose. While this article focuses on communication, the underlying issues it will address are culture and the proactive articulation of culture that drives associate engagement. Below is an outline of five critical considerations firm leadership should keep in mind when communicating with associates. When done well, internal communication can connect the dots between institutional efforts toward retention and the motivational drivers that lead to job satisfaction.
1. Establish an internal communications approach. What should law firms communicate to associates? The answer: as much as possible. Job satisfaction rises when people feel invested and included in their organization. Messaging can range from general firm updates to compensation and benefits changes, to first-hand information about an important firm change or situation. In each scenario, it is essential to look at the facts and assess what can be shared, even when it may not be appropriate to share all the information.
By openly and regularly communicating with associates, firms are sending a message that associates matter enough to be updated on the firm's business. Being appropriately bold about transparency helps create trust in firm leadership.
2. Involve associates and the professional development team. Digital marketers regularly engage in A/B testing, so why can’t we leverage this strategy when developing messages for associates? To the extent you can, engage associates and professional development teams in the communications process. Get their feedback on what you plan to say and when and how you plan to say it. For example, in the wake of the social unrest of 2020, we tested a communication strategy on a partner who led a firm affinity group. While this person agreed with the strategy, we skipped talking to any associates and incorporating their perspectives. This was a mistake, and ultimately the strategy came under some significant criticism.
Communicators need to test messages, especially when it comes to sensitive topics. Be sure to not overlook partnering with the professional development department when working on messaging to associates either. Members of this department spend their days working with associates and their perspectives are invaluable. You may worry that involving others could lead to a news leak or an implication that the decision is up for debate, but without these diverse perspectives, your message could fall flat — or worse, backfire. Hearing or anticipating reactions and questions in advance can sharpen your talking points and lead to better results.
3. Plan the timeline carefully. Timing internal communications can be challenging. Several years ago, we were planning an announcement to our associates that that we knew would end up in one of the local media outlets. This possibility meant we had to time out sharing the news with the partners, then the associates, then the media in order to control distribution and avoid our associates hearing the news first from someone other than our managing partner. Sometimes it can feel like a puzzle to consider different stakeholders, time zones and message variations, but it's vital to schedule wisely.
Job satisfaction rises when people feel invested and included in their organization.
4. Engage a multi-channel distribution strategy. Last year we launched a project aimed at defining our culture, which would serve as the foundation for future institutional programs addressing pandemic-induced changes at our firm. This project turned into a good case study for us on effective communication development and multi-channel distribution.
Late in 2020 and early 2021, many of our managerial discussions centered on the cultural implications of the pandemic. It became clear that we would be well served by creating a common language around our culture to ensure clarity and provide a touchstone when making decisions. We embarked on a quantitative and qualitative research project that resulted in the creation of our Mutual Expectations Charter. The utility of this exercise is best articulated by our managing partner, Todd Rolapp, who said “The research for the Mutual Expectations Charter was helpful for management to see the areas where there was a gap between associates’ perceptions of our firm and partners’ perceptions of our firm. Creating a common language allows us to bridge those gaps with language that resonates with both groups. It allows us to celebrate who we are, engage in tough conversations and discuss a future to which we aspire.”
To share the charter, we held 17 town hall meetings and a leadership retreat. The initial meetings included practice group partners to gain buy-in and leadership. We then expanded the reach to include full practice group members where the charter was shared, and partners and associates had the opportunity to share their reactions. Similar meetings with all administrative departments were also held. We then created and shared a video where people from varying practice areas and administrative departments talked about the charter in their own words, which allowed us to reaffirm that the resource was an articulation of our culture as defined by our people — not something developed by management or the marketing department. Our IT department also shared screensavers and marketing distributed notebooks and bookmarks, all branded and designed with the charter’s themes and messaging. Today, we continue communicating our expectations for ourselves and each other through programs and integrating the concepts into current practices and policies.
5. Prioritize personal connection. There is an inverse relationship between power and trustworthiness; as someone’s power increases, their perceived trustworthiness decreases. The antidote to this phenomenon is personal connection. It may feel antithetical, but a “listening tour” could be one of the most effective communications tactics management could deploy with associates. Leaders should familiarize themselves with talking points and meet with individuals to hear what matters most to them. Encouraging personal connection provides the opportunity for message iteration and refinement, or even the refinement of the program at issue. Personal communication is invaluable to organizations, but communication involves sharing and listening. Foster a feedback loop where people feel like they have the opportunity to learn and be heard. Our goal is not to make everyone happy, but rather lead the organization and our people in a way that engenders trust, loyalty and confidence.
There is no doubt that internal communication in a law firm is difficult and associates represent a particularly tough audience. There will always be people who misinterpret even the most carefully crafted message, but it’s important to remember that those individuals are the minority. By and large, associates appreciate being included in the life of the firm, and the more leadership can communicate well with this group, the more engaged associates will be.