Archives for posts with tag: communication

My last couple of blogs have been about communication, it’s part in creating employee engagement, and how sometimes, despite the best efforts of internal communicators everywhere, it doesn’t actually happen.

In this blog I will expound on the process that, for me, lies at the heart of any kind of communication, and ways that organisations manage to put obstacles or traps in the way that the process can work.

To start, an anecdote. I was at a workshop last week for people who want to work with businesses to help them become more innovative. We were doing a brainstorming  type activity and people had used the time to wander off and grab a drink (or make room for another one) and I found myself alone in the room with the workshop leader.

“You know, I do prefer to brainstorm on my own,” I told him. “It means I don’t have to waste time telling everyone else why they’re wrong.”

This clearly was meant tongue in cheek, but there is a kernel of truth to it; when I brainstorm I find it easier to run through things internally and then bounce pretty well-rounded ideas off others. It may be because Jung was right after all and my introvert personality energises from within, it might be because I’m an arrogant know-all, but hey, you’re reading this, so what does that say about you?

Anyway, other people I know prefer to brainstorm communally, feeding off ideas of others to help theirs grow. Maybe because they are extraverts, maybe they lack confidence in their own ideas and abilities?

Either way, the process will become a co-operative one at some point, and ideas will need to be shared, discussed and developed, and will (almost) always become better for it. Something new will be created, and creativity and doing something new lies at the very heart of effective communication, in my humble.

This is not to say that you need a new channel every time, or a different social media strategy for every announcement; it can (and in most cases) should be about the message, and that will in turn define the medium (or media) through which the message can be shared, feedback can be gathered and the conversation facilitated.

Unless, that is, the co-operation ceases to be co-operative and the process falls into one of several traps, such as…

1. We’ll do it my way

When working with others to produce anything, I think it best to share and build through dialogue. I find, however, that people with strong views about how to go about things, and dialogue gets replaced by a debate, with one side trying to argue for their approach, and against the other approach. This can be a real issue for an central business partnering team working with a particular part of the business who know what they like, and like what they know.

I have had many such conversations with local managers in my time, when I suddenly realise that rather than being in a meeting to create something fit for purpose I am, figuratively, on the other side of a debating chamber and having to defend my own views which are being attacked by the opposition (ie the person I am actually there to help). 

How to get out of this? Reframe things, sidetrack, take a break, do something else for a bit, distraction and misdirection, and then come back at it in a different way.

2. We tried that before, and it didn’t work

I can’t think of another phrase that I have heard in a workplace that incenses me more than this. It’s worse even than “you weren’t successful in that application”, or “yes, I’m afraid it is infectious”. It sounds like an expression of strength and knowledge. “Oh you silly thing, we know better than you what will work or not, thank you.” What it is, in fact, is an admission of failure and lack of imagination. It is the final redoubt of the traditionalist, sticking cravenly to the tried and trusted and denying the necessity of change.

It’s a phrase which sits alongside its cousin “That may be all right for them, but it wouldn’t work for us” as if evolution had taken a different path for that very specific bit of humanity. It is not even trying, and there is nothing worse than that. Thomas Edison (a chap of who I am by no means a fan_ was, so legend has it, told by someone that in coming up with 10,000 non-working designs for the light bulb, that he had failed 10,000 times. His response was that he had, in fact, discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Not for Edison “we tried it before and it didn’t work”. No, he tried it and found a way for it not to work, and then tried again. Another 9,999 times.

When someone first said that to me, I told them that they might not be able to make it work, but I might. And do you know what? I did.

3. That’s great, we’ll absolutely do that. Definitely. Now thanks, and off you go

This is where lip-service is paid to your ideas, and then you are sent away and things carry on just as they were. This is often at the heart of the failure to communicate I discussed in my last blog. We say that things will change, but we aren’t comfortable or capable with change and so we’ll just carry on with the status quo.

The thing is, communication is a process that results in change, and the status quo won’t do the job. Something has to be different.

How do you avoid this? The trick here is how you contract up front. You need to get buy in that something new will happen before you start and you need to ensure that commitment up front. In the big bad world of business that usually means someone more important than the people you need to implement things has to agree to it, and tell them to do it. Just try and do it in an inclusive and co-operative way.

4. Thinking outside the box (but inside the real box, which is just a bit bigger)

This is when people pit on their creative hat, do some blue sky thinking, say nothing is off the table, and then stick to what they know has worked in the past and will do everything to close down anything truly creative and ground-breaking. It’s a more disingenuous form of lip service than saying you will and not doing it, basically. I’ve seen it in thinking sessions, where people reach into what they know and then fall into a passive-aggressive defence of it (ie a subtler version of the debate).

How do you avoid this? Car parking is one technique. At the outset, just get everyone’s tried and tested, pet ways of doing it out in the open and pop them in a car park. When they come back to them later in the session (and they will, they can’t help themselves) you can just park it back up, and remind them that we would only go with new ways of doing things this time around.  

These are just a handful of obstacles, and doubtless you will have encountered others (and if you have, please do share), so have a think. You need to communicate something. You need to think of a way to do it. How do you go about it? What (or who) gets ion your way? Does the process fall into a trap?




I have recently subscribed to one of those new-fangled streaming services, whereby I can watch TV and films any time I like.

My current addiction is The West Wing, the tale of simple everyday leaders of the free world, and, for my money, one of the best shows ever on television. I was launching into season four when a moment sent  a frisson of recognition from corporate life.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is set in a fictional White House, and follows the adventures of the senior staff of President Jed Bartlet. As Season Four opens, Bartlet is seeking re-election, and is speaking at a soya bean farm in Indiana.

At the event three of his staff – the Director of Communications, the Deputy Chief of Staff and his assistant, get left behind by the motorcade and end up having to find their way back to Washington via various modes of transport, including a truck powered by soya diesel. The owner of the van explains how difficult things are for small farmers, and the senior staff give them the standard, off-the-cuff soundbites.

A little later the assistant, Donna, plays back to the more senior staff the conversation they have had, and tells them that they didn’t listen – they just spoke. That’s when the frisson hit.

A lot of businesses and organisations regularly have town hall meetings, management roadshows, leadership days out – they are always about getting the leaders out and about, meeting the people, getting those key messages where they need to be heard, aren’t they? Just like the President out on the stump, making the speeches and pressing the flesh.

But what an opportunity could be missed. See, there are lots of people there who listen, and a few who speak – even when there are Q&A sessions, the majority listen, the minority speak. What happens a bit less is that the minority listen, and the majority speak.

Obviously, leaders are busy people and their time is precious, they need to be doing important strategic things; but when they get an opportunity to listen to their people, how often do they take it?

People ask me about how to engage people in an organisation – they should do, I know about this stuff – and I tell them they need to get their leaders out there, on the shop floor, out on the road, in the factories, offices, fields or whatever, and speak to their people.

This leads to the aforementioned roadshows and town halls, and lots of extra work for the internal comms and events teams. It’s formal, it’s the presidential motorcade, the stage-managed delivery of the key messages. But that’s not what I meant, necessarily.

What I mean is management by walking about, what I mean is talking with people, rather than talking to them or at them.

The essence of communication is conversation, an exchange of information and ideas. If leaders go out and have the conversations, then it’s really important that they listen and take on board what they hear. 

In The West Wing, Donna upbraids her more senior colleagues for being focussed on the job in front of them – winning the election – and not listening to the farmer who had to take a second job so her father got health insurance, of making fun of the local fair when it was a source of pride and joy to the people who took part, in short, not being aware of what is important to “ordinary” people – or voters, as they are known. (If you want to check it out, it’s about 32 minutes into episode 2 of season 4, although it might be best to have a look at the rest of the programme too, if only for context. I’d put up a YouTube clip, but then I’d need to find one and all that).

Anyway, to give you a business example I was aware of – a retail chain did management roadshows, and asked workers what they needed to do. They got some really useful feedback – how products were selling, ideas for new product lines or marketing strategies. They also found out that there weren’t enough coat hooks in the staff rooms. They acted on this, and guess what? Engagement levels improved.

Another example, again from retail. In an employee survey one of the free text comments (out of many thousands) mentioned that the fridge in the staff area of a store in Scotland was no good. The leadership saw that, and bought them a new fridge. The next year the survey (which was predominantly paper-based) featured a picture on the cover of two colleagues from that store eating a nice cold yoghurt which they had stored  in their new fridge. That survey had a response rate in the high 80s.

Both examples show that when leaders listen and understand what matters to their people they can improve engagement, and, in turn, they can improve their business. So next time you plan a roadshow or town hall have a think – is this about getting the messages out, or getting them in?

Are your leaders so focussed on what’s in front of them they can’t see what’s important to their people – or even their customers? Have a think.