Is your communication style a message in a bottle?

January 15, 2019 by

I just returned from an amazing 30-day cruise of the Indian Ocean, which included ports of call in 12 different countries. While at sea one day exercising on the cruise ship deck, and prompted by a sunlight reflection off the water, I spied a sealed bottle floating on the surface of the ocean. It immediately made me wonder if there was a message in the bottle, and if so, I pondered what the odds were that the message would ever be read.

So many organizations are mistakenly using “messages in a bottle” to communicate to their employees. As a result, these messages become “lost at sea” and never reach their intended recipients. This new year presents an opportunity to revisit your workplace communication strategies, especially since communication is the seventh most impactful driver of employee engagement.1

When I was the owner of an employee survey company, two of my favorite survey questions were:

  • Where do you prefer to receive your information?
  • Where are you currently receiving information?

Respondents were given answer choices like: email, your coworkers, the company newsletter, payroll stuffers, and your manager. Of the over 3 million people surveyed on these two questions over three years, 52% of the respondents preferred to receive information and updates from their manager and yet only 32% of the respondents said they were receiving the information/updates from their manager.1

Needless to say, many employees feel that they are not hearing enough from their managers. Remarkably, over my 35 years of management consulting, not one organization I worked with inverted that communication gap, where employees would essentially say “we hear way too much from our manager.” Not one client out of roughly 10,000 clients.

If you want further evidence that managers under-communicate, carefully watch your managers’ default actions at the end of management meetings. Most managers’ default is to simply go back to work, as opposed to holding a “huddle” with their employees to share the news and information from the meeting.

Knowing that the aforementioned manager communication gap is the primary employee complaint about workplace communication, you should remind every manager on your team to take the message out of the bottle and deliver it in person to their employees.

On a closing note, while the exact history and origin of the “message in a bottle” placed in the sea is not definitively known, here are a couple of fascinating discoveries published in 1976 by the Reader’s Digest Association:

  • The longest bottle voyage on record was a bottle known as “The Flying Dutchman.” It was launched in 1929 by a German scientific expedition in the Southern Indian Ocean. Inside was a message, which could be read without breaking or opening the bottle, asking the finder to report where he/she found it and throw it back into the sea. The bottle surfed an east-bound current which carried it to the southern tip of South America. There, it was found, reported, and thrown back into the ocean. Eventually, it moved out into the Atlantic Ocean and then back into The Indian Ocean where it remarkably passed by the exact spot where it was originally dropped. Its final resting place was on the shores of Western Australia. The bottle traveled an amazing 16,000 miles in 2,447 days (a little over 6.5 years). Certainly a very respectable journey.
  • In 1953, a bottle was found in Tasmania 37 years after it had been dropped overboard by two Australian soldiers on a troopship bound for France. Astoundingly, this bottle was found by the mother of one of those Australian soldiers, who instantly recognized the handwriting of her son who had been killed in action in 1918. Remarkable.

Source 1: HR Solutions Employee Engagement Research Study.


Kevin Sheridan is an internationally-recognized Keynote Speaker, a New York Times Best Selling Author, and one of the most sought-after voices in the world on the topic of Employee Engagement. For five years running, he has been honored on Inc. Magazine’s top 100 Leadership Speakers in the world, as well as Inc.’s top 100 experts on Employee Engagement. He was also honored to be named to The Employee Engagement Award’s Top 101 Global Influencers on Employee Engagement of 2017.

Having spent thirty years as a high-level Human Capital Management consultant, Kevin has helped some of the world’s largest corporations rebuild a culture that fosters productive engagement, earning him several distinctive awards and honors. Kevin’s premier creation, PEER®, has been consistently recognized as a long-overdue, industry-changing innovation in the field of Employee Engagement. His first book, Building a Magnetic Culture, made six of the best seller lists including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He is also the author of The Virtual Manager, which explores how to most effectively manage remote workers.

Kevin received a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1988, concentrating his degree in Strategy, Human Resources Management, and Organizational Behavior. He is also a serial entrepreneur, having founded and sold three different companies.