Healthy organisations practice good communication
Before physicians treat a patient, they first do an evaluation – at a minimum taking a history and doing a physical examination. When we first engage a client organization, we do something similar to a patient history – a snapshot assessment of the organization based on interviews and focus groups of org members representing a diagonal cross-section. Since all organizations, like all individual patients, are unique, it would be malpractice to intervene without first getting an appreciation for that uniqueness.
Open-ended questions are the preferred means of hearing what is top of mind among those in the organization, and one of the very best open-ended questions is, “How is communication?” On a number of occasions there has been no need for a second question.
People have a strongly felt need to know what is going on around them. Unfortunately, leaders often feel there is much their people don’t need to know. In fact they fear the consequences of transparency and prefer that subordinates focus on doing what they’re told. This is not the recipe for an engaged workforce.
Not long ago a snapshot focus group member described her frustration with her boss because she needed a “go-no go” decision and wasn’t getting one. She scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue. After several minutes of having her boss dance around the issue, she somewhat startled him by declaring, “I’m a big girl. I can handle the truth, but I need an answer!” He somewhat sheepishly relented and gave her the “no go” decision he’d been trying to protect her from. She left feeling she might need to go elsewhere in order to be treated like an adult.
Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup, in the film A Few Good Men, famously bellowed, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” It seems many business leaders agree with Col. Jessup. The truth has difficulty navigating the hierarchy in those organizations, whether it is trying to go up or go down. The truth can certainly be uncomfortable, but ignoring the truth can be dangerous. A top priority in developing a communication capability in any organization ought to be handling the truth.
Not a One-way Street
On another occasion a leader was lamenting his organization’s need for more effective communication. He would take pains to be clear about communicating strategic initiatives, but become disappointed when his people lacked enthusiasm for executing them. The strategic initiatives were typically generated by a group of three executives teamed with an external strategy expert. To this leader the initiatives seemed quite brilliant, but he felt that brilliance was not being very well communicated down the line. His people were, in fact, getting the message. They just disagreed on the brilliance part.
It is no longer a surprise to learn that the leadership team in a client organization is not on the same page strategically. It will be a surprise the first time we encounter a leadership team that is on the same page. Despite this common finding, the CEO is almost invariably confident that his team is perfectly aligned… at least initially confident. CEO’s are usually content to assume that silence means agreement.
Healthy organizations – and by that I don’t mean organisations with wellness programs, but rather organisations that are working well – tend to view communication as a two-way proposition. Leaders of healthy organizations view listening as a critical part of their communication. People get on the same page by engaging in dialogue, taking the time for back-and-forth communication that clarifies points and addresses issues so that they truly do achieve alignment. Healthy organizations listen to customers and front-line employees to inform their strategy development. That’s the kind of communication that can drive enthusiasm.