As we stated in this post, any organisation is an interconnected web of human beings, all working together towards a common goal. Communication is the lifeblood of the organisation. Through communication, the individual human components together with the separate business divisions ensure they are working in concert and not in conflict.
Good communication doesn’t just happen. As humans we are communicative beings, but we all have individual ideas on what communication is, how it should be done, and what it should achieve.
A business can have the best product or service, top notch advertising and marketing, state-of-the-art office facilities and the most talented individuals out there, but if communication within the business is poor, the business will fail. Conflicting messages will be broadcast to customers, communication gaps will occur within the organisation, production will halt, conflict will escalate and the enterprise will eventually be crippled.
No matter what type of business you run, however big or small, you need a formal communications policy to ensure that both your internal and external communications are efficient, consistent and powerful.
We have stated that communication is the lifeblood of a business operation. Lines of communication need to be kept open and unobstructed between management and employees and between business divisions. If messages become garbled, misinterpreted or simply don’t reach their destination, the business will fail to operate effectively.
Even the smallest business will have some degree of executive order management. Whether you are a multi-national corporation, a small family-run business, a not-for-profit or a partnership, direction from the boss needs to find its way down the chain of command.
The structure of the business plays the most important role here. Having too many management levels can result in the message being altered as subsequent managers add, take away from, or block the message. Having an autocratic leadership style cuts off the feedback loop, meaning there is no way of checking if the message has been understood. It is not necessary to restructure your entire business; rather, having a robust communications policy will ensure that lines of communication are kept clear.
Solutions to top-down problems:
- Executive directions should be in writing. If company-wide instructions need to be delivered, they should be in written form, either by email to all employees, company letters or notices on the staff notice-board. Avoid sending the message to just the next level down from you and asking them to disseminate.
- All managers, regardless of their position within the company, should allow for open channels of feedback. Whether it comes via management, or direct from front-line staff, allowing feedback will ensure that the sender can determine if the message has been correctly received and interpreted.
- Executive directives should be in plain English and easy to understand. Avoid jargon or terminology that front-line staff may not understand.
Intra-business unit communication
More often than not, business is divided into separate units focussing on key business areas. There may be executive management, marketing, communications and sales, production, distribution, and retail staff. All the units are working towards the same overall goal, but they do so in different ways, and focus only on specific sectors within the business.
Most people pursue job roles and career paths that complement their personality; certain personalities are better suited to sales than production, to marketing instead of retail, and to management instead of distribution. Therefore, human nature being what it is, soon enough these separate divisions will develop their own cultures and evolve their own set of norms and communication styles. Although the differences will be very subtle, they can still result in communication barriers.
For example, sales staff may prefer to speak on the telephone than write an email, whereas management may prefer everything to be in writing. When the sales staff call, management may not pick up the phone because they are too busy to talk. Then, when management sends an email, sales staff may not notice it because they are too busy to sit down and read an email. Without recognising a need for a formalised norm of communication between business units, messages can become lost in the mix of everyday business life.
Solutions to intra-business unit problems:
- The last thing you should do is micro-manage communications. Instead of regulating, micro-management will stifle and most likely halt the flow of communication altogether. Allow room for different communication styles, and train staff from different business units in the acceptance and use of all forms of internal communication.
- Create a “shared communication space”, such as a staff noticeboard, company wiki or monthly morning tea, in which all staff are encouraged to contribute and provide an update on what is happening in their space. This will educate the differing business units about each other, and open the lines for informal communication to take place.
Develop rules for critical communication needs, for example if a customer complains about another business unit, or if a workplace incident occurs. Having a formal and recorded structure for crisis situations will ensure the appropriate steps can be taken, regardless of which business unit is involved.
Feedback is non-negotiable in successful communication. Without feedback, there is no way to ensure the receiver has received or correctly understood the message.
One-way communication is necessary in some instances, for example a fire alert signal, a sign showing which bathroom is which, or a tripping hazard sign. But for any form of interpersonal communication, two-way communication is a must.
Especially in a large corporate environment, it can be easier for the CEO to sit in their office dishing out the directives and let middle management handle the feedback. But even in small business, an autocratic or overly authoritarian management style is unhelpful and inhibits productivity. Staff will become disengaged when they operate in an autocratic environment, and disengaged staff will not put in a full effort, and may even create negative informal communication channels.
Solutions to feedback loop problems:
- All managers, regardless of position or power, need to be willing to accept feedback. It is the needs of the business, and not of the egos of the individuals running it, that should take priority. If a communication has been ineffective, it is in everyone’s interests, especially the sender’s, to examine where the process broke down and improve on it for next time.
- Establish formal feedback channels in the form of a suggestion box, anonymous internet feedback platforms, monthly one-on-ones, or daily huddles.
Establish informal feedback channels by encouraging open dialogue in the workplace or at social functions, and through trusted staff who can inform what’s passing along the grapevine.
Informal interpersonal communication
Your staff are human beings who spend many hours a day with each other in a mutually beneficial social group. They will form relationships, talk amongst themselves, share personal details, and possibly even strike up lifelong friendships or romantic relationships. Informal mutual interest groups will form around sport or hobbies, and the work space will develop an “atmosphere” of its own.
These days, businesses are beginning to accept the fact that these informal communication networks are not only inevitable, but also beneficial to the running of a business. Rather than stifling them for fear of negative informal networks forming such as gossip on the grapevine or cliques, managers should encourage and leverage them towards the overall goal of doing business.
Studies have shown that staff trust the grapevine more than formal communications from management. Businesses would do well to accept the grapevine as an irrevocable human institution, tap into it, and use it as a vital source of feedback. Because of the nature of it, the grapevine is rife with fabrications, exaggerations and misinformation. By inserting fact and truth into the flow, the grapevine can be a source of information worthy of the trust it already enjoys.
Solutions to informal interpersonal communication problems:
- Develop a “code of conduct”, which is a set standard of ethics and behaviour within the professional environment. Encourage staff to speak their mind and be open and honest without engaging in negative or destructive behaviour such as degrading or mocking speech, racist or sexist language, ganging up in cliques or inflammatory statements.
- Identify the “power holders” of the grapevine. Get them onside and feed them accurate and truthful information. They in turn can provide you feedback from the grapevine confidentially.
- Encourage workplace banter insofar that it does not interfere with business operations. Take time to go out on the floor and chat to staff about personal matters, such as sport or news or the weather. Spending time on staff in non-work-related conversation makes them feel valued and secure, and freer to be open and honest in formal communication.
Identify the emotional intelligence levels of staff. Consider training programs on interpersonal communication, empathy and self-management if emotional intelligence is lacking in some.
A communications policy does not need to be rigid, weighty and overly formal. It should suit the needs of the business it serves, but also not be so specific that it needs to change whenever the business does. By setting some overarching principles, businesses can leverage the power of internal communications to ensure that they keep on running like a well-oiled machine for as long as they want to.
Establishing formal and informal communication channels and codes is essential to ensuring the lifeblood of your business keeps flowing uninterrupted.
Dwyer, J 2012, Communication for business and the professions: strategies and skills, 5th edn, Pearson Education Australia, Frenchs Forest NSW.
Mishra, J 1990, ‘Excerpts from Managing the Grapevine’, Public Personnel Management, International Personnel Management Association-USA, viewed 18 May 2015, <http://www.analytictech.com/mb119/grapevine-article.htm>