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?

 

 

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