Filtering by Category: Communication
When an organisation is going through a potentially uncertain period of change there can be a tendency for a distance to arise between leadership and staff. Decision-making in such volatile environments can be fraught with disagreements and ambiguities, with leaders finding themselves debating more and more on which course of action to take. Sometimes there is just too much input to consider and the temptation is to limit the options and control the situation.
From the point of view of those not sitting in the decision-making circle it can feel difficult to influence or even be heard by the top table - leading to widespread frustration. A communication void further exacerbates the situation, with people filling it with rumour and speculation about what is going on “up there”.
The onus is on the leadership to be aware of this dynamic in times of uncertainty and do what it can to include, involve and listen to employees’ concerns and perspectives. Getting a broader viewpoint on a problem is rarely a bad thing and often the solution lies with those who do the work.
We believe change happens though conversations. Conversations require listening, which can lead to learning, mutual understanding and better relationships.
Hearing from different perspectives disrupts usual assumptions and encourages collaborative, creative thinking, which can lead to more considered solutions. Honest, candid dialogue can counter scepticism and resistance, building engagement and earning respect.
Listening requires being present, and it is all too easy to be distracted by background thoughts and considerations that may be running through our heads. Not least of these are issues concerning ego; that the direction of the conversation will be a reflection on our personal abilities, and therefore status. To demonstrate our abilities we want to make intelligent, ‘high value’ contributions, but it’s difficult to process lots of new information quickly so we tend to seize upon the things we can respond to confidently. If we try to anticipate where the conversation is going in order to prepare our response then we stop being curious - about the areas where we feel weak in order to capitalise on the parts where we feel strong. We can attempt to dominate the conversation so that there’s less new information to process and we can feel more in control, but by listening less we learn less.
Great conversations can be insightful and productive - and they require people to be curious and really listen to each other.
We often hear leaders’ frustration that the frontline don’t get the new strategy. And we hear from those people that they are being asked to implement a new change strategy they don’t understand, don’t feel connected to, or don’t believe in.
However brilliant a strategy looks in Powerpoint, it may not be worth much if it’s created at the top and cascaded down onto the people who will be delivering it. The one-way nature of traditional "comms" can create alienation, confusion and lack of meaning if it doesn't encourage the dialogue necessary for people to make sense of and fully understand the changes being asked of them.
This separation between strategy development and its implementation is often cited as a major cause of failed change programmes. The frontline should be involved in the strategy development process. Listening to what they have to say and taking their ideas, concerns and objections seriously can go a long way to creating a genuinely shared narrative that everyone can feel part of and committed to.
The well-worn tale of the Apollo Program, the visiting president, and the helpful janitor serves as a memorable illustration of team engagement and an apocryphal narrative about storytelling. After all these years it still stands out as a great example of the motivating effect of an inspiring vision.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.” John F Kennedy, 1962
Stories invite us to go on a journey and are so effective at delivering a message because they give the audience a way of engaging with the details and caring about the outcome. We are drawn in by being able to relate to the characters, their motivations and needs. We also recognise the challenge in the current state and become curious about how it can be resolved. The challenge may demand a journey or quest, which we hope will have a fitting outcome.
Every organisation has it’s own narrative and while not all projects and stories can be as uplifting or as clear-cut as a mission to the moon, seeing our place in a bigger picture can invest work with more significance and be emotionally compelling. Having the opportunity to reflect upon a narrative and make sense of our role within it allows us to consider new possibilities, inspire us to take on new responsibilities and conduct our daily work mindful of a long-term strategic vision.
Most of all it helps us take ownership of the challenge and consider what we can do differently to help overcome it. The scale and status of one’s role does not necessarily define the value of each contribution.
Even though we may have little influence in the grander scheme of things, by taking personal responsibility to manage the quality of our work we can maximise the positive effect we have. And if everyone has this same personal investment in the outcome of the story there’s no limit to what can be achieved.
I’ve recently been thinking about how important self-disclosure is in building relationships, and how I can learn to make it more of a part of my personal development. What started me thinking about this was a recent inspiring story about how England’s football squad learnt self-disclosure to build the trust and cohesion in the team we saw this summer in Russia.
In a recent Guardian article about the England football team’s sports psychologist, Pippa Grange, has been credited with their relative success in the 2018 World Cup by, amongst other things, encouraging self-disclosure amongst team members. As part of their training before the tournament, they regularly sat together and shared some of their intimate experiences and feelings, particularly around their fears about failure. The point, Southgate has said, is to build trust, “making them closer, with a better understanding of each other”.
Yet it can often be confronting to take of the armour off and share feelings and experiences at work. A lack of trust can mean that it’s not safe enough to reveal personal truths such as fear of failure. When you create a safe space to share its possible to learn about each other’s experiences, and in the process change our stories about ourselves and each other. As with the England team’s example, self-disclosure fosters stronger bonds between team members, uniting them around a common task or purpose and so improving performance.
In our experience we find that the most meaningful and motivating narratives are co-created through sharing stories. When people have opportunities to share how they feel, what they value and what motivates them, the shared narrative that emerges builds a stronger sense of belonging and common purpose. It’s common in organisations these days for leaders to want to create a new strategic narrative. Developing a shared narrative helps groups make sense of change, linking personal experience and identity to the organisation purpose and its wider context.
In the 2014 World Cup, it was reported that some of the England players were actually questioning whether they wanted to play or not, such was their fear of failure. Compare that to 2018. When Fabian Delph’s wife was about to give birth, his team paid for a chartered jet to allow him to be there for it and get back in time to play Belgium.
This is a wonderful story about Pippa Grange’s vision and commitment for creating a new team narrative of belonging and cohesion, nurtured through taking risks and encouraging the self-disclosure that led to a more effective team that we can all be proud of.
Every once in a while there is news of a trusted, successful brand that suddenly lurches into unexpected trouble. More than suffering from misfortune, they are revealed as deeply flawed, and are not what they seemed to be at all. When the internal reality doesn’t match the projected image they are effectively living a double life - one that is ultimately unsustainable.
Is it unreasonable for an organisation to want to project a flattering picture of itself, to instil pride and confidence in it’s staff and customers, while shying away from contemplating its faults and weaknesses, be they systemic or those of individuals?
Imagine if all the challenging, difficult stuff could manifest itself in a ghastly hidden picture instead of being lived, worked-out and resolved – like some fantastic deception in a gothic novel. That could be tempting, especially if problems are being suffered and managed by others and all the easier to disregard. Some may consider things are better left unsaid, to allow them to be managed discreetly and preserve the reputations (and dignity) of those involved.
However, exploring troubling issues openly can establish their true extent throughout the organisation, as well as offering a valuable opportunity to share experiences, correct misconceptions, and learn from each other.
While it may be appealing to avoid the upfront cost and disruption of directly confronting difficulties, how costly will it be in the long run to constantly bend to accommodate them? An informed, strategic response can attempt to share out the burden more fairly, rather than leave problems to be borne by just the individuals directly impacted. That could make for a story with a happier ending for everyone, not just those telling it.