It should come as no surprise that the organizations that have fared better through the Covid crisis, at least from the perspective of their employees, share one thing in common: communicating far more effectively with their teams about what’s going on, what they know and what they don’t know. The best have made it a two-way conversation, not a monologue.
On the flip side, those that haven’t held up as well from the perspective of their team members whiffed at communicating well with them.
Why is this not surprising? Because even in normal circumstances — whatever those are — team members at all levels of most organizations report that, “The biggest challenge facing our organization is communication.”
The Covid crisis and the aftermath of the George Floyd murder revealed that we face a lot of daunting challenges in organizations. Creating a culture of communications is critical to engaging employees and truly creating equity and belonging for everyone.
Here are five factors that help shape a culture of communication:
1. Set a foundation of integrity, trust and respect. A culture of communication is built on a set of common values, starting with a foundation of caring, trust and respect. Trust opens the door to people being willing to share their points of view. Caring and respect drive the ability to listen and hear at a deep level. They enable leaders to discern the question behind the question, to perceive the unspoken point and to learn from others with different backgrounds and experiences.
We have to make it okay for people to express different points of view. We also have to be willing to sharing our thinking and vulnerable enough to allow our thinking to be shaped by others.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Once is not enough. We’ve all fallen into the trap dozens of times: “I told them; I don’t know why they aren’t getting it. How many times do I have to tell them?” Obviously more than once! People have hundreds of things running through their minds at any moment. The monologue we’re delivering might not make the top 50 on their list. Worse, we all tend to filter in thoughts we like or agree with and to filter out (meaning block) stuff we don’t like. And, that’s in “normal” circumstances.
The implication for leaders is clear: we have to communicate any message multiple times in different formats.
3. Engage in the conversation.“ Listening, not processing” is a common barrier to effective communications. We give the outward appearances of listening — maintaining eye contact, leaning into the conversation, asking pertinent questions and paraphrasing the other party’s words. But we’re not processing. We multitask, think about our response or get distracted by the noise in the hallway or on the Zoom conference. We miss the true meaning of what the person is trying to say, or the feeling behind their words.
Truly effective listening requires fully engaging in the conversation — mind, body and soul.
4. Feedback is the breakfast of champions…as long as we’re willing to eat it. Feedback doesn’t feed if it’s not on the menu. Most of the time when someone asks individuals or groups, “How do you know when you’re doing a good job?” the number one answer is, “I must be doing okay because no one is telling me that I’m not.”
To ensure people are getting fed the feedback they need:
• Assume that more is better.
• Meet people where they are. Different people take feedback different ways. And, always deliver the tough feedback in private.
• Give it to them straight. When we sugar-coat the tough feedback, it radically decreases the chance people will hear what we need to them hear.
5. Be courageous. This is the acid test. If we rigorously pursue the previous four elements, we’ll drastically reduce the misunderstandings and confusion that plague so many organizations. But that’s not enough. When employees say, “Communications need to be better,” they’re not asking for more newsletters or tweets. They mean: “We have stuff we need to talk about in this organization that we’re not talking about. And, frankly, if you’re a senior leader, you often don’t even know we’re not talking about it.”
We must also suck it up and engage in the difficult conversations and confront the important problems that limit the potential growth of people and our organizations.
Preparing organizations to weather the next disruption like Covid, or close the racial gaps revealed in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, is tough stuff. We clearly all need to think and act differently. Communicating better is key to building organizations where everyone trusts and is respected. We can start fixing that problem today.