Culture wars part 4: Clarity of communication
In our fourth part of our Culture Wars series, we look at one of the toughest failing points when it comes to company culture: communication. As complex little creatures, humans are still figuring it out when it comes to asking for things, telling others to do things, or telling each other when something hasn’t gone right.
A very, very quick introduction to why communicating has become so difficult
Let’s just skip the first several million years or so of human communication and get to the email. Did you know the first email was sent in 1971? It said something like: QWERTYUIOP.
Anyway, the email was one of the worst things that could have happened to business communication. See, before then, memos and communications were done either by letter, or over the phone. Maybe a memo, or a fax, but only for very concise messages that had already been discussed prior. Now, with email, we could ping off as many communications as we wanted without fear of postage costs or the time it would take to pick up the receiver.
And the problem? All of the magical intonations, punctuation, flow and tone that made our communications clear and easy to understand as part of a phone call or lovingly-crafted letter were gone. One-sentence emails that said ‘send me the report’ could be interpreted a million different ways.
It gets even harder when this turns into a WhatsApp or a text. And even harder when we’re reliant on emojis
The communication mistakes leaders make
Bearing in mind that leaders have never been so involved and responsible, the time they’re given to communicate with their teams is limited. Lean principles, tight budgets and an inherent desire to load as much work onto the plates of the best-paid people in the organisation all mean talk is definitely not cheap.
Guess what? Busy people are great at spouting scrambled messages which they understand in their heads, but leave the person being asked to do the work with more questions that they started with.
And guess what again? The culture of the organisation is at the root cause of this. If the company culture is to fly by the seat of your pants and cram as much as possible into your day, you’ll naturally cut down the amount of time you spend communicating.
But if the culture is quality-driven rather than fast-outcome-driven, you’re more likely to give better instructions.
Neither of these styles is wrong, but you really have to think about how each approach would land with different types of people. Your smart go-getter may seem like they know what you’re on about, but might just be playing along to keep you happy. And your slowcoach, who looks like they need guidance on everything, may be sitting listening but really wishing you’d shut up and let them crack on.
And the easy fix is to just cascade your communications correctly, and check the people at the end of the chain are hearing and understanding exactly what you’ve communicated. Then you can understand whether it’s the way you’ve said it, or the way it’s relayed, that’s the problem.
It’s one thing finding the time for communication, and a whole other thing getting it right when you finally get around to it.
Guess what? Culture again. Some organisations get results by having an autocratic, foul-mouthed angry ball of energy (*ahem* Alan Sugar *ahem*) and some organisations get better results with a caring, nurturing warm ball of fuzz who sweet-talks their teams into getting over the finish line. Learn more about the first one in our Culture Wars conflict article.
Again, you need to question which style fits your culture. If your teams are used to warm and fuzzy, Alan Sugar MK II isn’t going to do it for you. And vice versa.
And it doesn’t need to be about extremes either. Negative communication can stretch to silly unwanted comments marked down as ‘banter’, passive-aggressiveness or even using the incorrect tone or words for the particular situation you’re in.
Sometimes the ‘status’ of the person communicating is vital too. Don’t give vital information as a comment in passing, then question why it hasn’t been actioned three weeks later. Make clear, documented communications a priority in your culture, and it’ll mean you won’t need to worry about not getting what you need further down the line!
The worst form of communication
Guess what? Culture informs this too: little to no communication at all.
Leaving folks in the dark is the ultimate crime of communication. Even if the information is sensitive, or you want to wait before telling people things, just say that. At least you’re setting an expectation of when the information or communication will arrive, as you risk a major cultural blunder: your teams jumping to conclusions.
But even when the information isn’t sensitive, leaders still forget to keep everyone in the loop. We may think our vision is out there, but we actually need to make a point of taking time to ensure everyone understands it, that it is being repeated and implemented.
Build open and honest lines of communication into your culture. Remove the smoke and mirrors or ‘need to know basis’ mentality. If your culture encourages you to keep information close to your chest, then change the status quo and hold more huddles, one-to-ones or leverage your internal comms, if you have them.
Communication has a gigantic impact on culture. If communication is inconsistent or lacks clarity and purpose, this will damage engagement. It’s also carte blanche for your teams to replicate this further down the chain. Before you know it, your lack of communication leads to a cultural mess, whereby it’s absolutely fine to stick a critical message on a post-it note.