Buzzwords or Background Noise?

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, December 8, 2008

Buzzwords make me cringe; words like "vision," "communication," and "innovation." They're like the beaverboard-textured, year-old granola bar in the vacuum-sealed aluminum wrapper that is sold as "natural," or the politicians who assure us they are for "education" and "jobs."

Too often, buzzwords are sound bites, signifying nothing, often told by poor managers to cover their own lack of shortcomings.

Peter Stark doesn't quite see it that way. The San Diego-based consultant and author has examined thousands of employee satisfaction surveys over the last 20 years from a variety of industries. He's compiled a list that shows that happy employees and successful companies value communication, vision, and innovation, along with a bunch of other buzzwords and catchphrases like "rewarding excellence," and "accountability."

This works for successful companies, he says, because they aren't buzzwords. The words represent actionable organizational philosophies.

"A lot of people overrate the word 'vision.' It has been a buzzword of the '90s and 2000s," Stark says. "But in organizations where employees say they love their job, and where they connect with their head and their heart, No. 1 on their list is that the company has a compelling and positive vision of who they are as an organization and they are able to communicate that to their employees."

No. 2 on the happy employee survey list is "innovation." Stark's surveys show that happy employees love working for companies that have enough confidence in their employees to let them solve problems.

Encouraging innovation is also the sign of a well-run organization, where employees understand their mission. "Whether it's with patient intake or improving physician support, the better a company and its employees have their day-to-day responsibilities down, the better the chance they'll have to work out something truly innovative," Stark says.

No. 3 on the happy employee survey is "communication." Again, this could mean anything, if it's just a buzzword. But Stark says true communication goes both ways, with managers communicating the right information at the right time to help employees do their job. Good news or bad, employees need to hear about it in a timely manner. It also involves listening to workers.

To encourage communication and innovation, Stark says employees should be required to provide one or two suggestions to improve organizational efficiency when they are filling out performance evaluations. "It says 'not only do I encourage employees to make suggestions, I expect it and I react to it and I reward it,' " Stark says.

So, what can you do at your healthcare organization to make buzzwords actionable? To change a corporate culture, Stark recommends that senior leadership, including the HR team, first define the vision. Once you know what you want as an organization, develop three to five strategic goals that will support the vision system-wide.

Then, create a department-by-department breakout so that your managers will understand their strategic goals and communicate them with employees.

Once your goals and strategy are in place, don't backslide. "Four to six times a year the CEO or the HR team must communicate to everybody where they are in relation to those goals," Stark says.

Show your employees the progress you've made on particular goals, and show how that progress is taking the organization closer to its ultimate vision.

"If you don't provide an update on the organizational vision and goals, at least four to six times a year, people will say 'Yeah, we've got a vision but nobody does anything about it," Stark says. When everything is in place, hold everybody accountable, including yourself. "Between the HR department and the CEO, the biggest piece is the accountability," Stark says. "Senior management has identified the three to five top goals, and each department director needs to be held accountable for the three to five goals in their area to support that overall vision. The more accountability, the better the chances for success."

And finally, to make this work, to change mere buzzwords into actions that will change a corporate culture, Stark says HR needs a seat at the table with senior management. It's hard for HR departments to talk about vision and goals when they aren't involved in the creation of that vision. And if HR is out of the loop, employees will know that very quickly. "The more credibility the HR department has, and the more people know they are in alignment with the CEO, the stronger the chances of success," Stark says.

John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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