Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Art of Communication

You may have heard recently that Spandau Ballet are reforming and going on tour. One of their many hits (they were one of my `guilty pleasure’ bands as a teenager, alongside my more public following of the Smiths etc) was a song called `Communication (let me down)’,

I’ve been thinking about communication quite a lot recently both in my professional and personal life. At work, we have been introducing some changes, part as an immediate response to recession, part to make sure the organisation is fit for purpose and prepared for whatever is ahead of us long-term. Thankfully, there are no redundancies and, when compared to what is going on even in other charities (cuts in budgets, major job losses, aggressive restructuring), our is low-richter-scale change.

However, I have been surprised at the level of response to these modest proposals. Which is not so much about the content of the change (people, by and large are OK with it, with notable exceptions) but the way it feels `done unto' to some people. Quite a few people have felt communication to be poor. This is despite quite a lot of time and effort from some very able people going into the very question of how we communicate the change. So a condundrum. Despite heaps of effort, not all of our communication hits the mark.

This leads to an obvious question: what indeed does good communication actually looks like in organisations? Although clearly not an expert, I have three hunches. The first is timing. People seem to respond better if the timing is right. Trouble is, of course, organisations cannot privilege some over others in terms of releasing vital information. Meaning one person’s good time may be another’s terrible time. Rules and regs mean we can't have `quiet chats',or discreet, off-the-record `heads-up' to particular key people etc, even when these are what both the person and the organisation probably would benefit most from.

The second is about medium. Being taken through plans in person is always better than by letter or email. Because it all has to be simulatanous - or worse, in some bizzare rote-order dictated by employment law, communication tends often to be electronic. This is inherently cold, even if you warm the language up a bit.

The third is about just this: tone and `humanity’. Often communication about change in organisations defaults into structural, metallic sounding language, which makes people feel immediately on guard. Again, this is partly what the rules of employment laws demand we do, but it seems to really grate with people and put them on an immediate defensive and break long-held `psychological contracts' that people feel they have with the organisation.

The really challenging thing for me as CEO of an organisation which is genuinely caring for its people is how even we, tend to struggle at important time with communication.

It can, at times, feel almost inevitable to do it a particular way, without either breaching legal processes or principles of fairness around access to information. Yet, at the same time, the standard organizational communication template, to which most organisations adhere, seems to cause real problems in terms of how people feel who are on the receiving end.

It is an interesting conundrum and not one unique to my organisation, which is why I feel I can talk about it openly. And it begs the bigger question of how we do communicate really well in organisations that contain many people.

Unfortunately neither Tony Hadley or Steven Morrissey have answers to either.


Jonathan Dearth said...

How is the election campaignigng going? Nothing mentioned for a few blogs.


Jonathan Dearth

Helen said...

I'm reminded of Tom Lehrer's take on communication - he states that books, plays, films and real life is filled with people who feel that they cannot communicate, and on noting that these characters spend hours and hours bemoaning the fact that they cannot communicate he says "I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least they can do is to shut up"
I know, it's not in the spirit of advocacy, but I also know Speaking Up has worked hard to improve communications and whenever we work so hard to provide a multitude of communication channels and they are then not used, I still find myself whispering it under my breath!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting commentary. Very honest and realistic. I will hazard a guess that the communication SU affords its staff is better than you think it is. The saying "you cant please all the people all the time" applies and the emotions and idiosyncracies of us humans ensures that the most effective communication will be perceived in a range of different ways.
The fact that you consider this dynamic so deeply and genuinely is enough to indicate a good organisational ethic, and that in my book is a good start.
Morrisey is beyond criticism in my view but Tony Hadley's efforts on Ross last week would have forced me to adopt Helens philosophy above.
Rob H