I presented at the Hill Solomon Conference in Birmingham recently, on a day dedicated to engaging staff in health and safety. And many of the attendees were running programmes of behavioural safety and employee engagement. As the day progressed it became very clear that effective communication through whole organisations from top to bottom was something everyone struggled with and many still feel is not as good as it could be. Many had very clear processes in place that they felt carried their messages to the staff, but virtually everyone I spoke to wasn’t convinced their message got through in the way it was intended and that it was understood by everyone who read or heard it.
Why is it so difficult to establish effective communication within organisations?
When I’m interviewing people for safety culture assessments however many processes are in place to communicate about safety it always comes out as something they feel could be improved. The message may be received by people but often there’s little opportunity for them to have their say about it. Things arrive as a fate a compli with little consultation or so people feel. The two-way nature of the communication process is often lacking and yes this can be because staff don’t take up opportunities to make suggestions or put comments in a box for example. Usually this is because they get little feedback about their suggestion personally and so often they feel it’s a waste of time.
At middle and senior manager level, meetings are often seen as a pain in the proverbial and things are discussed over and over, but this process isn’t happening further down the communication chain. Often, team leaders and line managers hear things for the first time in the meeting right before they’re expected to communicate the same news to staff on the ground, with little time to ask questions or clarify understanding. No wonder briefings or memos of this type are cascaded on with little enthusiasm. And as time is usually of the essence (so people can get on with the job) there’s little expectation that anyone will want to ask a question. So again: no clarification of content and how it’s going to affect people and how they work.
So what hope is there of establishing an effective channel of communication?
Everyone who is part of this channel at any level must understand that communication is not just passing on the message. It has to be about conveying the meaning and intention behind it as well. Anyone sending out information must want to make their message as clear as possible for the audience and must understand who that is. ‘No jargon’ I hear you cry, but this isn’t always easy for some people to move away from and if no one ever says “I don’t know what that means” then they don’t get the feedback that they aren’t being effective communicators.
Every person in an organisation should feel able to ask for clarification and get it, but we spend much of our time trying to create an impression of ourselves to others. This makes asking for something to be explained again very difficult for those who feel they’ll be thought less of by the people they wish to impress.
We’re all part of the communication channel, so next time you hear a message that you don’t understand, ask questions that gain you clarity. If you have to pass a message on, invite questions from your audience and ask them questions to check their understanding is correct. Don’t make assumptions that they’ve got it even if they say they have. Really listen to their comments. Be ready to explain in a different way and deal with any issues people have, they’re much more likely to engage with the content of the message and so make useful suggestions rather than moaning unhelpfully.