Communication from the Top
This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the good people at SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. Keep track of the series here and check our daily e-mail newsletter, for all posts. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.
Early in my consulting career, I did an interview with a Regional Director at a U.S. Government agency, who had a very clear perspective about communicating from the top of an organization:
“You need to tell your people things. Just tell them. Because if you don’t tell them, they’ll make it up! And what they make up is always going to be worse than the truth.”
It’s a beautiful point, reminding us that in organizations, there is the truth of what is happening, and then there are the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) about what is happening. In powerful organizations, the truth and the stories are closely aligned. In weaker ones, there is a disconnect, or a gap. And yes—you guessed it—having your employees making up stuff, rather than you telling them, is a sure-fire way to expand that gap.
And to be clear, your people aren’t “making it up” or telling conflicting stories because they are trying to cause problems. They make it up because they are human beings, and our human brains need a complete picture of what’s going on in order to operate effectively. If we don’t have complete information, then we fill in the gaps with assumptions (i.e., we make it up).
In organizations, there is the truth of what is happening, and then there are the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) about what is happening. In powerful organizations, the truth and the stories are closely aligned. In weaker ones, there is a disconnect, or a gap.
But I will admit, that the Regional Director’s advice by itself doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not just about “telling them.” That implies that the problem here is only about messaging, and it’s deeper than that: it’s about a culture of transparency. It’s about sharing more, sharing it quickly, and (perhaps most importantly) sharing it strategically.
The truth is, everyone in the organization doesn’t actually need to know everything that the top of the org chart is thinking and doing (that would be overwhelming). They just need to know things that will help them be more successful in their work.
Interestingly, those are things that the senior people frequently keep behind closed doors. So it may take some experimentation to get it right, but you need to actually create some kind of “transparency architecture” to enable the flow of the right information to the right people. Your meeting and reporting structure may need to change. You’ll certainly need to avail yourself of technology more for sharing information. You might even use social media as part of the architecture. Figure out what it takes to enable you to share more, share quickly, and share strategically.
It’s about a culture of transparency. It’s about sharing more, sharing it quickly, and (perhaps most importantly) sharing it strategically.
A financial services company did just that to make sure that their financial planners, who were distributed across all the nation-wide branches, were getting the information from national headquarters that they needed to better answer customer questions in real time. Once they got that transparency architecture right, the attrition rate at their branches dropped from 23% to 11%.
Despite results like this, I still hear push-back from people at the top:
- But what if being transparent means we air some dirty laundry?
- What if we want to wait until we’ve perfected the answer we want to share?
- What if sharing is going to cause conflict among our departments?
Leadership is hard work. You might have to reduce your dirty laundry by actually dealing with it.
Hey, I didn’t say this would be easy. Leadership is hard work. You might have to reduce your dirty laundry by actually dealing with it. You might have to become more comfortable with experimentation and the inevitable failure that goes with it. And yes, you might even have to be able to deal with conflict inside your organization. Such are the responsibilities of organizations with strong cultures.
In this day and age, being at the top is different. You have to behave differently than our predecessors did, particularly when it comes to communication. If you want a culture that works—one that is going to be attractive to the growing swells of Millennial workers (and now managers)—then you should learn not only how to communicate more effectively, but to create a more transparent culture.
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