Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Improving Internal Communication

Some people can make easy predictions. For example, a weather forecaster in Phoenix can predict sunshine and be right most of the time, so can a stock broker who suggests buying low and selling high, or a teacher who says: “Study and make a better grade.”

Organizational consultants can easily and with confidence predict that every organization has communication issues. No study must be done. It’s obvious – where there are people, there will be, at least, occasional communication issues. Unfortunately, too often if these communication problems go on and on they will impact the organization’s ability to do its work. They can also make work less fulfilling for all involved in the organization.

When we understand what impairs good communication, we have the ability to monitor and correct the problem before it becomes the norm. There are many things that lead to poor communication such as not listening, stubbornness, or fear. Here are four more issues that consistently impact positive internal communication:

  • Organizational structure – based on old models that limit transparent communication
  • Triangulation – where people are not direct with each other, therefore nurture mistrust
  • Misinterpretation – not understanding another’s intent, and
  • Blame – often misdirected and always hurts open communication

Organizational structure

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, noted statistician and organizational consultant who contributed to Japan’s industrial and economic growth in the 1980s, urges: “Organize around business functions, not people.” For the best, transparent communication in an organization, everyone must be encouraged to speak his or her mind and ask questions without the limits of an arbitrary set of rules that try to control free communication. Therefore, the more open and decentralized the structure, the more open and potentially productive the communication.

Open structures lead to better communication but require a new leadership model. Margaret Wheatley’s book Walk Out–Walk On, published in 2011, and again in a Resurgence Magazine article called Leadership in the Age of Complexity, suggests that the day is gone of relying on the expertise of a few anointed leaders who are expected to know all the answers and are counseled before every decision. In today’s complex world, she suggests, we need everyone’s maximum participation to solve problems. No individual will have all the answers. Therefore, we need everyone in our organization communicating across lines, up and down and across the structure. Today’s institutions need experts in coordination because emerging structures require less “control.” 

Hierarchical, top-down organizations are not typically productive in fostering open communication. There are new models. Jim Collins in Good to Great described how such structures work though “getting the right people on the bus.” In other words it requires spending more time hiring individuals with the best capacity to work within the values and goals of the organization (alignment), rather than just seeking the most qualified based on experience and credentials. He says if we hire “who then what,” management becomes less of a challenge. Also, Collins describes how new structures need every individual in the most influential positions to be, “… more dedicated to the success of the organization than their own personal success.” He calls such people Level V Leaders. New structures are becoming more common. The younger the worker, the more that reality is embraced. 

However, for those of us raised on the old assumptions, change can be a challenge. We learned vision and process. Today it seems the more a leader uses process to control, the less control there is and that inspiring others through vision does not guarantee faithful followers. We need leaders who can convene diverse viewpoints, encourage cooperation, exemplify the work and values of the organization (lead by example), share power, and clearly communicate what must be done without being too prescriptive on how to do it. Wheatley refers to individuals with this acumen as “host leaders.”

Military leaders understand this concept. One may assume that the military would be dominated by command and control logic. Ask any of the numerous retired generals living in Alaska – that is no longer their assumption. The military has been working on decentralizing leadership much longer than the corporate or nonprofit worlds.

While the following indicators could be situational, not systemic, when a few of these are seen over time it could indicate that the institution, or department-division, has organizational structure issues. They are:

  • Employee turnover
  • Low morale
  • Excessive absenteeism or presenteeism (the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc., often resulting in reduced productivity)
  • Length of time to fill open positions
  • Low donor or customer loyalty
  • Continuing chaos

Having no structure is a disaster – so is too much structure. A more decentralized structure where every person’s input is sought is the best solution.

If you are in a leadership position in an organization with too much process/control, first analyze the structure and see what isn’t working before suggesting that you don’t have the right people. Ask if you spend most of your time making sure things are done? Are your employees pointing the finger at each other when things don’t work? If so, you are likely in an overly controlled environment.

The main issue is to determine how much time is spent managing (controlling), and then ask how much time should be dedicated to that effort. If an organization does a better job in the hiring process by bringing the right people in, it can spend more productive time by coordinating energized, aligned workers and much less time having to manage what they do. The trick is to manage systems, not people. The less you have to manage people, the more open their communication.

If you are a team member in an overly structured organization, there are a few things to understand. In the new work environment, everyone must hold themselves to a higher degree of personal accountability. Workers must be competent in their job and must own their responsibilities. The most important of those responsibilities should be a willingness to work cooperatively in a team. Decentralized structures can only function when they are comprised of motivated people, working together, aligned by commonly understood purpose and values. Thankfully, most nonprofit employees have the potential for this good alignment.

Therefore, each employee must look within, before looking around, when they sense communication problems. They must honestly analyze their own communication. When they are each certain there is nothing to be done that would improve their personal listening and sharing, then it is appropriate to look around to see what else might be done. When they observe communication problems anywhere, they should share those observations with leadership – often leaders are not aware there is a communication issue until someone tells them. 

If you are in an overly controlled organization have faith – over time, more and more workplaces will adapt to this new way, or they will not attract the right staff, therefore won’t survive.  Two thoughts about effective organizations with less control are:

  1. Leaders should manage systems not people, and
  2. Team members must look within first when they experience a communication problem.

Triangulation

Webster’s definition of triangulation refers to a technique used by surveyors to determine distance.  However, social scientists adopted this term to refer to one of the most toxic behaviors for good communication in any organization. 

We were all children. Therefore we either triangulated, or have experienced triangulation. Remember when your sibling ran to your parent and blamed you for something? Or when you didn’t get what you wanted from one parent so you went to the other to try to get your way? In the social context, this is triangulation. 

Some people never stop this behavior. For example, John has a work related problem with Suzy. He goes to Suzy’s supervisor to tell him how Suzy did “whatever.” John has begun the process of triangulation. If the supervisor then intercedes on John’s behalf with Suzy to help fix the problem, triangulation has occurred. And even worse, if the supervisor goes to John’s supervisor, then even more are potentially involved in the triangulation. The fact is that triangulation rarely has a positive outcome. When organizations allow triangulation to occur, there will be increased communication dysfunction.

The best way for individuals to solve a problem between themselves is to settle it face-to-face, person-to-person. Remember how you felt when your parent listened and responded only on the word of your sibling? Unless there is danger involved, evolved parents urge their kids to work it out between themselves. It’s even preferable in a bullying situation for a bullied child to be empowered (as much as possible) to address the bully face-to-face – unless, of course, there is potential for bodily harm. The parent’s job is to be clear that a dispute, unresolved, is not acceptable. It’s the kids’ job to find a solution. As adults, when we engage others in our disputes, we rarely make a situation better – we only aggravate the misunderstanding and perpetuate poor communication. Supporting direct communication between two parties in conflict is always the best solution.

To be certain, there are times when two individuals have tried to communicate face-to-face, and failed repeatedly. In that case, it may be a good idea to get an independent third party to mediate the misunderstanding. Seeking independent consul is not triangulation because a skilled advisor will either coach those involved on how to confront the other person appropriately and directly, or in some situations moderate their communication. But an independent moderator would never triangulate the conflict. Neither a friend nor a supervisor is a neutral party. A neutral party is someone without connection to either party.

The best strategy, if approached by someone seeking your engagement in a dispute, is to listen. Hearing someone’s problem does not have to result in triangulation. It is also OK to coach the person on how to address their concern. Always recommend that they have a face-to-face conversation with the other individual. Never volunteer to deal with the issue or serve as an intermediary. Sometimes a person that brings a problem to us only needs empathy, so just the act of listening could be therapeutic.

There are three options for someone to avoid triangulation:

  1. If you are in conflict with another, either let go, forgive the other person for whatever they did, not bring anyone else into the discussion and go on with life; or
  2. Confront the issue face-to-face with the other person and find a solution; or
  3. When all else fails, solicit help from an independent, experienced mediator. Most other solutions will not end well.

Misinterpretation

Misinterpretation is at the root of poor communication. There are times when someone intentionally creates conflict, but most times it happens when someone misinterprets another’s intent. 

I was raised in the South where it’s the norm for a person to show deference to an elder or someone in a position of authority. For example, referring to someone as Mr. or Mrs., or responding with “ma’am” and “sir” is expected. In other cultures, saying “ma’am” or “sir” can be interpreted as sass, not deference. I didn’t have a clue that when I said “yes ma’am” to my future mother-in-law that I got off on a very bad foot. It took a while for her to understand I was trying to be polite.

Misunderstanding arises when I interpret your behavior through my norms. We live in a very diverse world. What’s polite in one culture can be seen as rude in another. Even in what may have seemed a more simple, homogeneous world, a family from the same race, religion, and cultural background could still misinterpret another’s intent. Remember the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s? 

Today we live in communities comprised of people from very different social norms. The potential for misunderstanding is tremendous. Think about those raised with the belief that showing up on time is a virtue. Then put them in a culture where specific time is relative. Time sensitive people may get angry, even indignant, over the other’s lack of concern about being on time. Or think about how someone who was raised to not confront or interrupt in conversation meets someone whose culture allowed them to speak louder and louder to make a point and where arguing was a virtue. It would be very easy for there to be misunderstanding.

The way to minimize the impact is to stop and reflect before responding. When someone says or does something that is upsetting, rather than jumping to a conclusion, analyze if there could be another way to understand their intent. An increase in cultural competence could be necessary to reduce misunderstandings.

There are times that our norms and beliefs are so strong that even if we understood that someone may have no bad intention, we strongly disagree with their point of view. When people “know” that they are right and others wrong, conflict can blow out of proportion. That of course is the cause for most war. Common ground and compromise are necessary to reduce such tension.

In nonprofit organizations it’s easy to find common ground. Even though we work in and with multicultural communities, we understand that we humans are more alike than not. We were all children, have families, seek acceptance, feel pain – and most of us don’t like fruit cake. It is through common experience we build understanding. As the world continues to connect more through technology, we hopefully may have fewer unintended conflicts from misinterpretation. 

Three things to minimize misunderstanding are:

  1. Notice how another’s actions or words upset you – THEN DON’T REACT.
  2. Ask for clarification about what just happened or was said, stay open and inquisitive, try not to be defensive or aggressive, listen to their intent.
  3. Even when there is clarity on the other’s intent, share in a non-accusatory manner how their actions or words confused, or upset you, so they understand how their action, no matter how unintentional, impacted another.

Blame

Blame is often connected to and starts the process of triangulation. It is caused through misinterpretation. And blame is a cornerstone of hierarchical, overly controlled organizations referred to with the business sounding word “accountability” and fueled by rigid policies and procedures.

For example, in a command/control structure, every box in an organizational chart has specific responsibilities. When things go wrong, it’s supposedly easy for someone to be held accountable. Right? Maybe in a perfect world that’s the case. However in most hierarchies, even when it seems clear who is responsible, it’s easy to blame up, across, or down the hierarchy. 

As clear as any rule may seem, someone can always challenge intent. If that were not so, we wouldn’t need lawyers. Hierarchies don’t work as well as in the past because no individual, from the top box to the bottom, has the ability to control all the variables that come to play in today’s complex world. An example of how blame is more ambiguous would be who is to blame when someone checks an email and opens an attachment that contains a virus that spreads through your network? Who’s accountable? 

In emerging, networked/decentralized organizations, blame is replaced by an increased expectation for personal accountability (not managed, but embraced by all) and a shared responsibility among the team. When something goes wrong, rather than focusing on the individual who messed up, productive teams find a better way to structure the task. They tweak process to reduce the risk of repeating the mistake. Collins calls this “autopsies without blame.” The less blame, the better the communication.

The ability to let go of blame requires that everyone on a team have a high degree of competence and trust in each other’s ability. It also requires integrated problem solving when, whenever possible, groups of people looking at the same set of data can debate a solution and then work as a team to implement the strategy. 

When dependence on a controlled structure is reduced, for example, in times of crisis with little time for group decisions, everyone must be clear about how quick decisions can be made, and by whom. In those situations the team must be willing to implement the solution regardless of their concern about a strategy.  There will be time after the crisis for an autopsy – conducted without blame.

Finally, in order to alleviate blame, everyone must be willing to adopt a specific behavioral norm. They must first analyze their own personal responsibility for the problem before they hold someone else accountable. If I think that someone “is to blame” for not letting me know about some information I thought I needed, rather than blame them for leaving me out of the loop, I first must ask myself was there was anything I could have done to make sure that I knew what I needed to know. 

The main point for reducing blame is the same as any communication dysfunction – individuals must own their personal responsibility rather than blame others.

Closing thought – conflict is acceptable

Most of us like to live and work in harmony. In discussing communication problems, it could be easy to think that there should be no conflict in organizations with effective communication. That is a misguided assumption.

Controlling, triangulated, misinterpreted, and blaming are bad for communication. But differing opinions and rigorous debate are great for good communication. Granted, some debates get heated and can result in high emotion. But great organizations need healthy dissent.

Dissent challenges us to push our comfort level while it provides new insight. It can make us stronger. Sometimes we may need a “time out.”  We may need to take a breath, get centered, determine if we are controlling, triangulating, misinterpreting, or blaming, but then we must re-engage.

Instead of expecting to have a culture with no conflict, we should develop a safe space to practice dissent in all of our organizations. We should embrace direct, non-rancorous, debate on important issues. If conflict discussions are focused on process or data, not personality, there should be fewer negative emotional reactions. When we practice healthy dissent, over time, we will become better equipped in engaging in healthy, diverse conversations.

You may have noticed that while we described four issues in this article that can be a factor in poor communication, the theme throughout is that the only way to have good communication is for everyone to own the responsibility for good communication. We all must understand the purpose of our organization and our role in it as well as the shared values that bind us together. We must trust that everyone else on the team has the same understanding and commitment, and if not, we trust that they are either going to be brought into the fold, or asked to find another opportunity. And we must learn from each other about how others react to our actions, and how when we don’t understand their actions, we ask for their intent – we must learn and grow.

Healthy organizations have diverse people with differing opinions and with a variety of strengths and insights. So even if it’s true that where there are people, there is conflict – we can still embrace dissent, even encourage dissent in order to maintain good communication. 

A new mantra?

I own good communication. If I’m in an organization that has poor communication, I am responsible for changing my behavior before pointing the finger at anyone else. Good communication starts with me.

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