Communications in organizations are a dynamic and flowing human system
Organizations are problem solving systems. Countless decisions are made each day by employees, teams, management, vendors, partners and clients that impact an organization. Executives and employees are the ‘electrons’ in the circuitry of these systems, travelling via the ‘wires’ between the organizations components: the people, teams and departments, to collect data, synthesize information and provide perspectives, insight and analysis. The better the system operates, the better the insight which in turn is used as input to make better decisions and solutions to business problems. Higher quality decisions, built one atop the other over time, lead to better products, faster service, increased innovation and financial results.
This simplistic view of organizations helps when looking at process and operational problems. However, one of the most common and important business problems that is insulated from this approach has to do with communication. Specifically, listening.
So what? Well, in our electricity analogy, the concept of conductivity can be compared to communication. Higher conductivity equates to faster and better communication. The greater the focus on listening, the higher the ‘signal to noise’ ratio, which is the metric to measure the accuracy of information received at the destination. Listen well and receive messages clearly.
Highly conductive communication with employees can power more than internal business activities. Employees don’t just work for your company. And they don’t just buy your product. They buy into the very idea of your company. Hopefully, you hire the smartest people you can find. But smart people have options. The fact that they choose to invest their time (which is much scarcer and more valuable than money) working for you can and should be incredibly humbling.
When dealing with major organizational change, often driven by technological innovation, efficient communication can provide the ‘electrical grid’ for powerful and rapid insights to solve problems and navigate the obstacles in the way of success.
So if the benefits are clear, what’s the issue? Better communication is like our electrical grid, it requires endless work to expand, improve and maintain. But something interesting happens when we raise this topic to senior management.
Most business owners will tell me that they do a great job of listening to their employees. “I have an open-door policy!” they’ll say. “Everybody on the team gets a 360 degree review every year! I do an employee survey!”
And yet when I spend time talking to people on the ground, the sentiment is invariably different. In businesses undergoing significant growth, crisis, or transformation, listening to employees is one of the very first casualties. When the pressure’s on you as an executive, it’s easy to have your own ideas executed and assume that if no one loudly objects, then everyone’s on board and feels heard. This is the exact opposite of what is needed.
So how can you tell if you’re listening effectively, and not just paying lip service?
One of the earliest indicators of chronic non-listening is feeling like your employees aren’t listening to you. They may have reasonable issues that they simply don’t raise because they don’t think you’ll listen, care, or actually do anything about it. Other symptoms of not listening to watch out for:
- High employee turnover, absenteeism, or excess sick days
- Stagnant growth, few referrals and little repeat business
- Low morale and employee engagement
- Lack of personal ownership when it comes to dealing with issues
- Feeling annoyed that your employees aren’t more proactive
How do you listen in a way that helps your employees actively contribute?
Coming back to the diversity issue: your team is likely composed of a range of personalities and talents. And that’s a good thing. The reason you’re the B-O-S-S comes down to your ability to deal with ambiguity, take risks, and make decisions with incomplete information. But what makes a good CEO isn’t necessarily what makes a good engineer or a good product manager.
Understand that not everyone thinks and acts the way you do. Some people need a bit of coaching to say what they’re really thinking. Also:
- Recognize the power dynamic at play. Even with the flattest organization structure, at the end of the day, you sign the paychecks. Understand that employees can feel like it’s taking a big risk to disagree with you.
- Make a point of admitting when you make a mistake or don’t have the answer. Nobody expects you to have all the answers all the time. But employees need to know that your ego isn’t running the show.
- Actively solicit feedback, and establish a safe environment to share. This means time and space that’s designated specifically for the purpose of listening. Remember that it’s natural for people to not want to raise issues for fear of blame or retribution. A safe environment that rewards communication will help get you the feedback you need, as early as possible to better respond to problems.
- If possible, schedule one-to-ones or small team sessions. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts in a large group. This doesn’t have to be with everyone, all the time. But dedicated time when needed to monitor that ‘signal to noise’ ratio to ensure you are hearing what you need to.
- Use open-ended questions, but provide enough context and structure to get the conversation going. An employee may feel like they’ve got nothing to contribute, and then with a little prodding remember a recent challenge or interaction that could be instructive to the group.
- Resist the urge to be dismissive.You may have already considered the idea raised by an employee, but respect them enough to acknowledge the idea and talk through your thinking and decision-making process. If a team member feels that you’ve shut them down, they’re less likely to contribute the next time they have an idea.
- Reward people for bringing fresh thinking to the conversation. When an employee does share something you maybe don’t want to hear, make sure to thank them. Help everyone understand that opposing opinions, when raised in a respectful manner, are welcome.
- Say no to HiPPOs. The HiPPO, or Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, often takes precedent even if it’s not the best course of action. Let the best idea win, regardless of where it came from.
- Once you’ve listened, take action. People need to feel like their opinion matters. When people can see their ideas put into practice, they become engaged and invested in the company’s success.
Effective and high volume communication with your people can power your efforts to execute on your strategy, drive innovation, and lead organizational change.