Even on the best days, in many companies, internal communications are suffering. People work in silos and are isolated from other departments. As a result, miscommunication is the norm, which creates suspicion between departments and resentment among co-workers. It’s a prickly situation that can quickly flat-line profits and kill morale.

To make matters worse, no matter how small or insignificant the miscommunication problem might be, it can eventually poison the entire company. Think of the problem as a porcupine quill – a small yet potentially lethal object. If a porcupine quill is not properly removed from the skin, it can move two inches deeper each day. Worse yet, a piece can break off, creating a fistula – the result of a broken quill traveling to unsuspecting parts of the body. This can cause major damage to vital organs, and even death.

Festering wounds within organizations can result in similar “infections” if left untreated. In other words, just because things look good in research and development doesn’t mean the accounting department (or maintenance) isn’t feeling a pinch. Communications challenges quickly spread and lead to other, sometimes more serious, internal issues.

So, why is communications within companies so appalling? Quite simply, most people are stellar at their particular discipline (i.e. maintenance, accounting, IT, marketing, etc.), but they lack the necessary people skills and the ability to manage others. Additionally, many employees report that their managers don’t pass on information they get from the executives. Either the information flow stops at the management level or the information is filtered down to the point that it’s meaningless. And when employees feel uninformed, they’ll fish out information on their own, even if it comes from unreliable sources.

In the wild, porcupines eat bark from tree trunks, especially near the base, thereby killing the trees. In business, if internal communication isn’t in place, a company’s foundation is in peril. Eventually, with enough employees gnawing at the foundation, the company will topple.

To keep this from happening within your own organization, consider the following steps.

1) Address the problem.
The first step to removing the quills from your company is to address the problem you have. This means actually sitting down and talking face-to-face with the other employee or department head. E-mail communication, which certainly has its place in business, should not be used for this step. You need to actually talk with someone, no matter how anxious this might make you. As you do so, remember that everyone interprets the same problems and opportunities differently, depending on job responsibilities. Therefore, approach the conversation as an advice session, as in, “I know I aggravate you when I do ________. How can we overcome this situation?” Get some ideas on what the other person is thinking. Listen intently to their words and observe their non-verbal language. When people feel listened to and respected, they’ll be more willing to work with you toward a solution.

2) Tell the truth.
As you talk with the other person, talk straight and honestly. Eliminate half-truths and “spin” from the conversation. Forget about excuses and admit any fault you may have in the problem. A simple “I screwed up” goes a long way. Explain how the problem affects your attitude and work performance, as well as that of your department. Promote two-way communication by asking open-ended questions, as in, “What do you suggest?” “How do you think we should proceed?” and “What do you propose our next steps should be?” The more truthful you are in your communication, the more honest feedback you’ll receive. Only then can you arrive at a true solution.

3) Identify the true origin of the problem.
Now that you have cleared the air and have some new insight from the other person, you need to do a little digging to get to the root of the problem. What’s really causing this problem to occur? Is there a flawed or missing procedure? Is another party unknowingly involved? Is a technological glitch part of the equation? This digging may take some time to unearth the real problem, but it’s definitely worth it. Remember that you can’t play the blame game – someone or something is at the root of the problem, and it’s up to you to discover it. The sooner you find out what it is, the sooner you can resolve whatever issues plague your organization.

4) Take steps to solve the real problem.
Once you know the true source of your angst, you need to deal with it head on. Simply knowing the problem won’t make it go away. You have to take action to resolve the issue and keep it from recurring. With the other person you’ve just cleared the air with, go to the source of the problem that you’ve uncovered. Confront that person or department in the same productive way. Be direct and honest and explain the situation as you see it. Ask how the source can help you resolve the problem. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of rewriting a policy so it’s less confusing, or maybe it’s a bit more complicated and requires some new technology. Whatever the case, inform the source of what you’ve uncovered and work together to eliminate the problem once and for all. Yes, this step takes courage, especially if the source of the problem is a supervisor or executive, but doing it will enable you to remove the quills that are paralyzing your company.

Keep the Porcupines Away
Removing the quills from your company can be painful process, but it’s certainly no more painful than watching the organization crumble. That’s why you need to display courage and take the first step to bridging whatever communication gaps exist in your company. But realize that this isn’t a one-time fix. Just like a porcupine, your company’s quills can grow back at any time. That means your internal communications process must be perpetual in order to succeed. So keep the open and honest communication going at all times, and always remember to dig deep to uncover the true challenge that’s holding you back. When you do, your employees and co-workers will foster better relationships, which will lead to increased productivity and profits for years to come.

About the author:
Roger Hall is a founding partner of Porcupine Communications. With more than 30 years of experience in marketing and communications, Roger helps companies improve their bottom line with effective leadership. His forthcoming book, “How Do You Pet a Porcupine? Solutions to Prickly Communications Problems”, incorporates his experience working with companies such as Bellcore, Siemens, Rubbermaid and Ericsson, and applies it to today’s workplace issues. For more information, call 866-972-0690 or visit www.porcupinecommunications.com.