"We do not exist to communicate, but we do need to communicate well to exist."
-Diane Walker, Children's Centre Thunder Bay
Throughout our careers (as employees, business owners, and in the work we do now), we’ve seen many examples of misalignment issues between managers, teams, and departments, both in their day-to-day work and while trying to implement strategic directives or projects.
The interesting thing is that when the challenges became bad enough to bring all those involved together in a ‘Hail Mary’ meeting, the topic of poor communicating was almost always discovered to be one of the root causes of whatever was going wrong.
What was even more interesting was that for something as obviously important to success as communicating well, it was the one activity that everyone took for granted and assumed would just happen organically. After all, these are smart people who know what’s what and work together all the time. Why wouldn’t they tell one another what they needed to know when they needed to know it?
The reality is good communication doesn’t just ‘happen’ organically. All we need to do is look around during this pandemic to find unending examples of contradictory, misleading, or incomplete messaging at every level, from community to global. And these are coming from organizations that have dedicated communication departments full of experts. Thank goodness most of us will never have to deal with anything as complex and urgent as a pandemic, but smaller-scale versions of these communication issues do impact us and our work nearly every day.
Communicating well requires commitment. Many times, the responsibility of communication is left to executive assistants or HR departments. EA’s are not necessarily trained communicators and often these activities are done off the side of their desks due to all the other responsibilities they have. Likewise, the only communicating human resource professionals should be expected to be responsible for are those having to do directly with human resource issues. Implementation and operational communication should be the responsibility of leadership, management, and their teams.
Communication capacity should be developed throughout the organization at all levels, and not left to a single communications person or department. Most small to medium-sized organizations can’t afford, nor do they need, a full-time communications person. What they need is someone who can act as a coordinator or hub. Someone who understands the principles of what it takes to communicate well, and who has the interest and skill set to support and oversee the transfer of information. If trained well, this is likely a half-time position, at most.
Awareness, capability, and responsibility for communicating should be baked into an organization at every level. This way, regardless of what they’re working on, in the back of their mind, everyone should be asking themselves who needs this information, why, and when. And including communication as part of your performance review process signals the expectation that this subject is part of your culture now.
All employees should be aware of and understand the five elements of communication and how they work (Who, What, Why, How, and When).
Middle Management should have a deeper understanding of what communicating should look like if it’s tied to implementing a project or directive. This would include topics like timing, strategy, and messaging.
Senior Leadership should understand how to link implementation communications to strategic objectives and organizational vision and values. This would include alignment specific communication practices.
Embedding a communication mindset into an organization’s culture takes time and discipline. There’s no magic wand that will make this shift happen quickly or without some heavy lifting. Having the foresight and commitment to focus on something that can support your success at every level is not an organic process. It’s a clear and conscious choice that requires discipline and patience.
The approach we’ve outlined here may be a big concept to wrap your mind around if you’ve never considered the role communications play at all levels of your organization. The basic structure we’ve suggested won’t guarantee perfection, but it should help you get it right 80% of the time.
“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”