Changing Your Communication Culture
It starts with assessing your present Communication culture.
A month (or so) ago, I introduced a series on managing culture change that will provide managers with tactics to effectively work with eight levers of culture to create a culture that provides a strong foundation for sustainable strategic advantage. I made a few points about culture and culture change that it will be important to recall as we move forward:
- Culture isn’t the same as employee morale. It’s much more.
- Culture may be difficult to define but we know what it is. And we can tell a strong, positive culture from a weak, negative one.
- Culture is the foundation of strategy.
- Creating a strong, positive culture isn’t easy…if it was, every organization would already have one. But it is straightforward.
A Quick Review
The eight Culture Levers aren’t listed in any order overall, but it’s no accident that Communications holds the top spot. All the other levers are dependent on the organization’s ability to acquire, store, retrieve, and transmit information intramurally and to the environment. Surveys have shown that organization leaders spend more than 80% of their day communicating. Further, there’s no such thing as, say, good Problem Solving or good Innovation in an organization in which Communication is poor. So, let’s start our discussions of how to effectively manage and change culture with that lever.
Communication includes everything that an organization does to acquire, store, retrieve, and transmit information across internal boundaries and with its environment. It entails whether associates get the information they need to do their jobs well. It includes, as well, all the channels and methods by which information gets acquired, stored, and transmitted. That means that Communication encompasses technology, facilities, etc. from bulletin boards and post-it notes to computer servers and the cloud.
Organizations that have strong Communications cultures realize a competitive advantage in the marketplace. In some organizations, effective Communication is a matter of life and death: one study showed that 1,700 deaths occurred in hospitals over five years because of poor Communication. The NASA report on the Columbia shuttle disaster points strongly to poor communications as a central factor. Strong Communication cultures can lead to lower employee turnover, improved process effectiveness, and improved motivation.
How does a leader start the effort to improve the Communication Culture Lever?
A leader’s job includes regularly evaluating Communication in his or her domain with respect to these three roles: getting information, transmitting information, and collaboration.
- Getting Information: Do associates get all the information they need, when they need it, to do their jobs effectively? Is the information they get easy to understand? How easy it is for them to get that information? How easy is it for them to retrieve data and information?
- Transmitting Information: How easy is it for associates to transmit data and information to others? How easy is it for associates to transmit ideas, problems, solutions to others in the organization? (The study about hospital deaths mentioned above found that nurses and technicians often didn’t feel comfortable communicating important patient information to doctors. That’s a Communication culture issue.)
- Collaboration: Is conversation and discussion that leads to innovation, problem-solving, decision making, and planning valued?
The best way managers can evaluate the Communication culture would be to ask these questions of their associates. Surveys can work well but face-to-face conversations are the best method. We’re not interested in a “statistically valid” assessment of the state of Communication in the organization. Rather, we just want a starting point: What works well right now and what doesn’t?
I once had a client that had done an exemplary job of developing key measures and using them to regularly update associates as to the plant’s overall performance. After one of those meetings, I asked employees what they thought of the company’s efforts to keep them apprised of the plant’s status. They reported to me that they very much appreciated the company’s good intentions. They also reported that they didn’t really understand the key metrics or their purpose. To its credit, plant leadership changed the way they configured and talked about the plant metrics.
Good communications that provide a foundation for high performance aren’t achieved only through good intentions. Rather, they are obtained through regular review and improvement of communication effectiveness.
Once you’ve engaged your associates in assessing the current state of Communications in your company, you’ll need to follow through with action. Pull your leadership team together to go over the assessment findings. Your task at this point is to form the disparate comments and feedback into a cogent description of the current state of Communication.
At this phase, don’t let your fellow leaders fall into “assessing the assessment”, i.e., discussing whether the information is valid or not. Rather, look for Communication strengths you can build on and improvements you can make. Then prioritize these strengths and areas for growth and develop action plans for addressing them.
One last thing: don’t carry out an assessment of your Communication Culture Lever once and then never again. Do it every year. And, of course, be sure to follow up on your action plans. As you do, you’ll be surprised at how the problems you once had just seemed to fade away.