As part of our service offerings, our firm regularly administers employee surveys for clients. These surveys address the many areas that make up a company's culture, including leadership, performance management, career development, teamwork, communication, recruitment, compensation and several others. Recently, we've seen a consistent trend identifying poor communication as the greatest opportunity for improvement. Even companies that afforded regular opportunities for employees to attend classes on communication skills seem to suffer from this dilemma.
I'm guessing this is no surprise to most of you. You probably feel the same way within your organization. Communication just seems to be an omnipresent challenge. It makes me wonder, though, why communication seems to be continually identified as a problem area. Shouldn't we all be good at this by now? So, what's the problem? Is it our inability to master the necessary skills? Are most people just unskilled, lacking the understanding and application of effective communication techniques? Is it our dependence on e-mail and Blackberry devices?
Technology has certainly played a large role in lessening the importance of good communication skills. We've gotten a little lazy knowing that clarification of any misunderstood communication is only an e-mail or cell phone call away. We've all become more dependent on instant communication, and the need for thoroughness has been less critical. Or, maybe it's our busy schedules. Everyone seems to be overloaded with work these days, and some things just don't get as much attention as they deserve. After all, what's more important, ensuring that you replace that pump and motor on time and under budget or sending a memo about the new recordkeeping procedure?
All of these reasons are valid; however, I believe the root cause of this issue reveals something deeper than poor or lacking communication skills. Go to any training on communication and you will probably learn how important it is to ensure that the "receiver" hears or "decodes" the message correctly. They will teach you that "active listening" is critical, as is the ability to understand your "audience". They even address how you are to effectively use e-mails and text in your communication arsenal.
These are all great lessons, and I don't want anyone to think that these techniques aren't important, because they are. What I do want to convey, though, is that the only chance you have for successful communication starts with the act itself. In other words, if you don't know when and what to communicate, it doesn't matter what techniques/tools you use or who receives the message.
Going back to employee surveys, the main reason employees seem to have a poor opinion of the communication skills within their organization is because they aren't receiving the important communication they need to do their job in a timely manner or at all. And when people feel like they haven't received the important and timely communication they require, a bit of human nature tends to surface through resentment and frustration. This only compounds the problem.
I've written about this problem before, but it was focused on change management. In that article ("Change, the only constant"), I stated, "Finally, the key to successful change management is good, meaningful communication. As a teacher once told me, 'The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished'. So, make sure there is plenty of it. Just when you think you've communicated enough, communicate some more."
Now, I'll flip it around and say that good communication starts with good change management. If you want communication to be effective within your organization, focus on the "when" and the "what". The "how" is very important, but it is completely useless if the right information isn't delivered at the right time. And, unfortunately, I believe too much focus is put on the "how".
We seem to relate the term "communication plan" with only large-scale projects or events or something that comes out of the corporate office. I encourage you to think about and apply a plan during the normal course of your work, whether it's a new policy or procedure or something large like a plant shutdown. For each project, think your communication plan through. At minimum: 1) Define your objectives. 2) Define your audience. 3) Define your action plan. 4) Define your communication schedule and tools.
And, just remember: When it comes to communication, timing is everything!