Communication break downOn 1 Jun 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Thefast-changing nature of today’s business environment means it is crucial thatthe lines of communication between management and the shop-floor are effective,trusted and always open, says Bill QuirkeThe business world is in the midst of a period of unprecedented turbulence.Once this would have been considered wholly negative, but today we are seeing anew model of uncertainty, which is as much about opportunities as threats. Organisations are specialising, generalising, merging, acquiring,downsizing, expanding and restructuring at an alarming rate. Nothing is certainany more. Today’s competitor is tomorrow’s ally. The next development intechnology could potentially wipe out a whole market overnight or give birth toa total new breed of business. Add to this the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September and thethreat of recession, and it’s clear that if businesses are to survive andthrive in these challenging times, they need to become more agile andresponsive. Used strategically, communication is the cement that will bind theorganisation together and ensure people’s energies are focused in the rightdirection. But the mixture – and the application – needs to be right. A new style of communication with employees must be developed – one that isless about directing and more about engaging with people. Yet manyorganisations are trapped in a time warp, using a style of communication thatis more suited to the production lines of the 1970s than to the fast andflexible companies of today. Businesses need to help employees find their way through the increasing massof information heaped upon them so they can focus on what’s really important.They must refine the way they use technology to communicate, to ensure themedium doesn’t cloud the message. They have to find new ways of helpingemployees build relationships and share knowledge – often over distance andwith people they may never have met and will work with only for a short time. Uncertainty is worse than bad news How often does this happen in organisations? Change is coming, so seniormanagers spend hours locked in the boardroom refining their objectives,considering options and evaluating solutions. They then ‘announce’ their conclusions– and expect everyone to march meekly in the right direction. The reality, however, is that in times of uncertainty, organisations needmore than just compliance from employees. They need to engage people’s heartsand minds, gain their energy and commitment and get them focusing their effortsin the right direction. One of the first steps to doing this is to recognise the need to ‘share thethinking’. In times of change, people are more stressed by uncertainty than bybad news. They are hungry for information about rationale, options, possiblescenarios and implications. They also, naturally, want to know how it willaffect them personally and what the organisation needs them to do differentlyin the new scenario. Unfortunately, organisations in turmoil often want to keep their heads downand restrict information. This may be because leaders are not clear themselvesabout what’s going on, or what stance they should take, or because they areworried about disclosing confidential information. But even if you can’t givepeople absolutes, you need at least to help them understand the context,appreciate how fast things are changing and give them a sense of the directionin which things might be heading. If people understand the bigger organisational picture they will be morewilling to stay for the ride and more motivated to do the job you need them todo. If they understand the specific role they need to play, they will be betterequipped to make decisions and more willing to share knowledge and informationwith their colleagues. If information is withheld, speculation and gossip will be rife and trust inmanagement will be quickly eroded, at the very time you need everyone to be ‘onside’. Equally, if employees only have half the picture, they may waste timeand effort focusing their energies in completely the wrong direction. Communicating change effectively Different types of change require a different communication approach.Engaging employees in a major culture change programme, for example, calls fora different approach to gearing people up for a short-term campaign. It is alsoimportant to recognise that people will move through the change process at adifferent pace and will have different levels of anxiety. There are, however,some broad principles that are useful: Create a sense of urgency If employees are mistakenly feeling ‘fat and happy’, they need to bere-educated. They need to be taken to the ‘top of the strategic mountain’ andshown the oncoming threat to continued survival. In other words, employees have to go through the same thought and learningprocess that senior management have been through. A shared sense of urgencycomes from a shared understanding of the business threats. Communicate the big picture Employees need to understand the business environment they are operating in.Some leading companies have recognised this and responded by trying tocreate greater business literacy among their staff, educating them about themarket and keeping them up-to-date with consumer trends and changes incompetition. Armed with this knowledge, employees will understand the likelyimplications for themselves and their job and will be better equipped to makedecisions. Share thinking as well as conclusions When people are uncertain and question the competence and the credibility oftheir managers, it is more important than ever to share thinking. Change will not be properly understood, let alone implemented, unless peopleunderstand why it is necessary. Commitment comes from a sense of ownership, andownership comes from participation. People need to be actively involved indiscussing how the change can be implemented in their area. Say what’s on their mind, not what is on yours In times of uncertainty, credibility comes from being willing to acknowledgewhat people are already thinking. This accelerates the pace at which peoplewill engage with senior management, energises people because they feel they cansay what they think, and makes it more likely that you will flush out unexpectedbarriers to implementation. Maximise the sense of continuity and stability If change is sold as ‘revolution’, it can seem too extreme and sudden forpeople to cope with. Employees see it as violating their traditional values andwill resist and cling to existing work patterns. What they really want is tomaintain continuity where possible, make it through the change with as littledisruption as possible and quickly re-establish equilibrium. Positioning changeas evolutionary will therefore help reassure people and make them feel there iscontinuity with the past. Do not wait Even in the most uncertain of situations, there is always something that canbe communicated. Managers often mistakenly assume that they are in control of communicationand can turn it on and off like a tap. Unfortunately, if management does not communicate, the grapevine will. Thekey is to be proactive and manage communication, rather than having to react tothe latest rumour. Communicate probabilities and scenarios While you cannot predict the future, you can talk about what might happen.People will speculate anyway, so you may as well give them real possibilitiesto think about. It is also helpful to give people a timescale of when youexpect to be able to communicate specific information. Low-key managementbriefings are a good way to talk about possible scenarios and allow employeesto ask questions and discuss the possible implications. Make face-to-face the main channel Research has shown that people prefer to receive information about changefrom their immediate manager, face to face. Line managers are often perceivedas being ‘in the same boat’ as their teams. They can help their people ‘unpack’information and make the connection to their day-to-day jobs. If youcommunicate in this way, you will be better able to assess people’s concerns,correct misconceptions, gather feedback and minimise the chances of sensitivedetails being leaked. Train managers in new skills Managers are traditionally good at presenting information, rebuttingchallenges and winning the argument. Communicating change, however, calls for adifferent set of skills. Managers need to be able to listen, debate and connecton the right emotional level with their staff. They need to be able to usevivid language and make information come alive. Invest enough time Communication is a process, not an event. It is unrealistic to expect that ashared conclusion will be reached on the first attempt. Communicating changesuccessfully means listening to people, allowing them to test your position,helping them to share the thinking and process the information – and thentrying again. Challenges for global organisations Global organisations have a more complicated challenge than most. Theymanage across different time zones, making it difficult to manage informationand update employees at the same time. Management styles in different countries mean managers have conflictingideas about what is confidential and what is appropriate to share withemployees. Different countries also have varying degrees of legal constraintabout what organisations can and cannot communicate to employees. Different organisations have different degrees of cultural ‘permission’ toraise issues and explore concerns. Europeans, for example, can find thatraising doubts about the future can be seen as overly negative by UScolleagues. Organisations will have communication channels of varying quality – someparts of the organisation may be effectively wired up for e-mail and webcasts,other countries may be difficult to contact and have far less access to IT. The logistics and timing involved in translating information addscomplications and time. Fast translations of central information arenotoriously tricky – management in the Russian office of one globalorganisation translated the key phrase ‘your line manager’ to ‘your prisonwarder’. The relationship between corporate centres and their operating units canhave a huge effect on managing communication. Operations that regard the centreas a costly and unnecessary hindrance often fall into the habit of filteringout information coming from corporate centre. Those in the operating units arethen happily unaware of changes until it is too late. Managing communication in these kind of organisations means getting stronglinkage between the corporate centre and then operating units, and clear rulesof engagement about who is communicating what to whom. Pulling communication together Following the above steps is not enough in itself. Communication needs to becoherent – people need to hear the right information, understand it, and beable to act on it. Using the following processes is a good start: Involve senior management Research has shown that 69 per cent of Fortune 100 companies do not have acommunication policy. A recent Synopsis survey suggests that where there is acommunication strategy, only one-third of boards are involved in formulating orapproving it. ‘Road test’ communications In times of uncertainty, employees are more likely to misinterpret theinformation they are given. There is therefore a far greater need for managersto ‘road test’ the message before it is issued to ensure they flush out anypossible misconceptions and misunderstandings. Plan ahead Communication planning should involve senior management and focus onbusiness objectives. Organisations need to develop an annual calendar ofcommunication events and milestones, which is linked to the business plan andreviewed at regular intervals. Map attitudes and audiences Organisations need to look at who is affected by the change, gatherinformation about their current perceptions and think about exactly what it isthey need to know. In any period of change there will be different audienceswith different communication needs. Some will need a ‘wake up call’, forexample, while others may simply need education or reassurance. Co-ordinate If those responsible for internal communication do not co-ordinate their efforts,they will compete for employees’ time and attention and cause ‘communicationclutter’. Different functions, such as HR, corporate communications, IT andmarketing, need to work together and share thinking, plans and priorities. Practice ‘air traffic control’ Organisations need to adopt a more sophisticated approach to managingcommunication if they are to avoid the problem of information overload. Theyneed to shift from the ‘factory’ method of pumping more and more messages downcommunication pipelines, to ‘air traffic control’, where information is plannedand prioritised. Use measurement and tracking Feedback becomes more important in times of uncertainty, because employeesare more likely to misinterpret information. Organisations need frequently tocheck that the right messages are getting across by setting up feedback ‘loops’(via line managers, intranets and e-mail) and organising regular focus groupsand tracking surveys. Focus groups should be used not simply to check whether the message isgetting across, but how people are decoding it. This is important for tworeasons – it alerts senior management to where there are misinterpretations,and where the message is not believed, so signalling to them that they have toget straighter in their talk and more willing to acknowledge what’s on people’sminds. How strategic positioning failsSenior managers in a Europeanmanufacturing company were becoming increasingly frustrated at the failure ofproduction workers to appreciate the true competitiveness of the market theywere in. Most board members believed that customer satisfaction with theirproducts was low, while a significant number of first line supervisors had adifferent perception, and thought customer satisfaction was fine.These supervisors reassured their teams that everything waswell – defeating the board’s efforts to issue a wake-up call to the workforce.The ‘disconnect’ was entirely due to a failure to discuss information andeducate people about its implicationsHow strategic positioning winsAbbey National, a major UK bank,introduced an ‘air traffic control’ communication system that it believeshelped it in a time of major change – fighting off a hostile takeover bid fromglobal giant Lloyds TSB. Abbey National’s head of communications NeilFraser-Smith, says: “It would have been very easy to have been sidetrackedinto rubbishing the other company, but a highly-co-ordinated approach tointernal communications helped us focus on messages about what the impact of atake-over would be on innovation, customer service and choice. This fitted withour external communication strategy as well – and in the end, won the day.”The Synopsis Report Communicatingin Uncertainty can be downloaded from www.synopsis-communication.co.ukBill Quirke is managing director of Synopsis Communications Consulting. Beforefounding Synopsis, he was a director of Burson Marsteller. He is a regularinternational speaker, and is the author of numerous works on internal communication,including Communicating Corporate Change, published by McGraw Hill Related posts:No related photos.