“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw
Communication has always served as a leadership imperative and at times an Achilles heel. As leaders, we can over-confidently assume on the wrong-side of the effectiveness and efficiency of our communication. We often operate under the belief that our lines of communication are sufficient and proficient, only to discover, often by surprise, that our channels of communication were more than lacking in both clarity and coverage. Unfortunately, when the lines of communication are strained and ineffective in an organization, silos, stress, dysfunction and confusion take root and their heavy chains strain and bind the organization.
Leaders must take a broken record approach to their communications. Over and over and over again is the message. Consistent and constant, vision and goal focused, unwavering. Never missing an opportunity to reinforce and reiterate. The message can never be over-communicated, whereas in most cases it tends to be under-communicated. The mission, vision, goals and even next steps must be shared, revisited, reemphasized, and monitored, constantly. As they say…rinse and repeat. It is critical if your organization is to operate in a high-functioning and aligned manner.
Visualize and imagine it as if it is about “getting the whole system in the room”…if you want alignment across your organization, top to bottom, east to west. For communication to be effective, conceptualize what must occur for the message to spread across the institution as if the whole of the organization was congregated in the same room, at the same time, taking in the same message. Your organizational communications must flow from that intention…and with that level of calibration. When we fail to “get the whole system in the room”, the message dissipates and the mission, vision and goals are often miscommunicated and misaligned.
And neither underestimate the amount of work effective communication takes, as it is no easy task, especially in large and complex organizations. It is never an event…rather, it is an ongoing, dedicated process that requires tireless effort and diligence by leadership…at all levels of the organization.
Communication has the ability to tear down or ratchet-up an organization…usually falling into one of these two camps, which I will refer to as an organization’s “wheels of communication”…
1. The Driver (Wheel of Fortune): When leadership is accessing the “driver” wheel…communication is being driven throughout all levels of the organization. The “driver” creates momentum and forward movement. And like tires on your car, you might not always be able to see them, yet you know what keeps your vehicle moving forward. You understand the importance of maintenance, keeping them in top condition, inflated properly, and with the right level of tread. And on the flip-side…the dangers and perils of not maintaining them. Placing your vehicle and your passengers at risk knowing that road-side debris and potholes could possibly cause a flat or blow out. Putting your vehicle out of commission and stalling your ability to reach your destination. And yet, the very same situations occur in our institutions and organizations. Communication must be maintained, monitored, and altered. It is a necessity if the organization is to function at a high level. Inability to communicate effectively will most likely stall the momentum of your people, your organization, their work, the goals, and the vision.
2. The Spinner (Wheel of Misfortune): This second wheel runs in a completely different manner and is most often a result of miscommunication, if any communication exists at all. The “spinner” is caused from breakdowns and disjointed communication spinning throughout the organization. It is best visualized as the hamster in the cage. When the “spinner” is in effect, silos spring up in similar fashion to the cage of the hamster. And just like a hamster, we find ourselves running on that wheel in the cage…working hard, giving it our all, only to discover that we are just spinning our wheel. Neither gaining ground nor moving forward, just spinning. Everyone looks busy, everyone appears to be working hard, and yet most are fraying at the edges as the silos and communication breakdowns keep them spinning in place. When the “spinner” is in effect, people end up tired and frustrated from the lack of direction and progress. And like the hamster, many will eventually give up the wheel…choosing to lie down and wait to be fed ‘next steps’…disengaged and frustrated with the process and the organization. When your people no longer look to add ideas, when they wait to be told what to do next…they are most likely spinning on the wheel of miscommunication.
When we invest the time necessary to create vital channels of communication in our organizations, we are strapping on the “wheels” of momentum that will drive our people and organizations forward. It requires the leadership and our leaders to take a “getting the whole system in the room” approach to communication.
If we want to hit our targets, then everyone needs to know what is most important and where to set their sights and place their focus. That is, if we want our organizations to gain momentum to move forward effectively. When you realize that those you serve have stepped off the wheel, tired, frustrated, and waiting to be fed “next steps”…it may serve as a prime time to revisit your “wheels” of communication.
“Getting the Whole System in the Room” is a phrase borrowed from Patricia Shaw’s book, Changing Conversations in Organization: A Complexity Approach to Change.