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Communication matters. Organisations are networks of relationships – individuals interacting in pursuit of hopefully shared goals, aims or objectives. Even departments of one must interact with others to be able to clearly identify what others require – or what they require from others – and how best this can be achieved. No desk is an island, not matter how big or deep the metaphorical moat around them might sometimes feel, but when things go wrong or mistakes are made it is common to hear ‘communication’ being singled out as the diagnosis.

But perhaps something else needs to be said here: that communication – or a lack of it – is more likely to be a symptom than a cause. Think of communication issues as the organisational equivalent of post-adolescent acne or obesity: yes, they’re something to tackle, but they have arisen for a reason. What needs to be addressed is the underlying cause, of which there could be several. The following are only a few examples – the list is potentially lengthy.

Unclear Goals or Roles

If an employee is unclear about what is required or expected, it is more a matter of luck than judgement that they will deliver it to the organisation’s (or their Line Manager’s) satisfaction. If two people both think the other is responsible for something, chances are it will a) not be done, b) be done twice but in different ways c) trigger avoidable disputes. An organisation or manager that cannot define responsibilities and set clear and unambiguous goals is unlikely to see them accomplished. You can get what you want without asking for it, but that’s luck, not leadership.

Ill-defined Structures and Processes

If reporting lines are blurred, or individuals or teams are in situations where they must serve two masters who are unable to either co-ordinate or align their expectations, successful outcomes are unlikely. Where a multi-disciplinary or cross-functional effort is required to achieve the organisation’s objectives, ensure the organisation is designed accordingly so that silo behaviours don’t encourage teams to work against or without each other rather than together, While the immediate impact is on the sub-ordinate(s), the lasting impact is on the organisation that is either allowing the situation to arise or failing to take action when it does. The organisation needs employees to have clarity as much as the employees do.

Poor Leadership

Leadership is a responsibility, not a status. It shouldn’t need explaining, but to lead is to set the direction: people’s willingness and ability to follow is largely dependent on knowing where there are being led. If leaders are indecisive, if they fail to define a direction or provide clarity when it is sought or are unable (or worse, unwilling) to communicate their visions and strategies, employees will be confused. Their experience of poor communication and inadequate or unhelpful responses to requests for clarification are also unlikely to inspire them to continue to communicate upwards.

Cultural Misunderstandings

In an increasingly globalised, multi-national and multi-cultural world, understanding across cultures is important. Attention to detail in one culture is micro-management in another, and even matters as seemingly small as interpersonal manners can have an unexpected impact. Consider the following example from a UK citizen working in the Netherlands, taken from a Daily Telegraph article and illustrated what adaptation can require:

“Being stopped by a Dutch airport official to be told that you look “so much better than your passport photo” becomes an amusingly phrased compliment. Numerous female friends have described going into work without make-up and immediately being told they look ill or tired. In the UK this would be a social faux pas, here in Amsterdam it is shrugged off as (you guessed it) Dutch directness.”


When we are angry, it’s possible we might raise our voices. When we are demoralised and no longer see the point, we are more likely to lower them – or even silence them. While there may be an element of ‘chicken and egg’ to disengagement and poor communication, consider the 12 questions in the GallupQ12 survey, an international standard in measuring employee engagement. Seven of these relate directly to communication issue:

  • Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  • At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

Inappropriate Leadership Style

Are your leaders directing when it would be more effective to coach? Telling when it would be inspiring or engaging to ask? Focusing their concern on tasks at the expense of a concern for people? Are they inviting dialogue, or are they broadcasting? If the leadership communication style is ill-fitted to the situation, the outcome is unlikely to be tailor-made to the original objectives.

Inappropriate Behaviours

People don’t only stop communicating when they are demoralised. Sometimes silence descends either because people are self-censoring responses that would be intemperate, or they are not communicating in the first place for reasons that serve them more than they serve the business. Attempting to gain power or hobble the performance of others by withholding information, malign gossip, rumour-mongering, belittling others – or, less malignantly but equally damagingly, criticising the person rather than the work – are all behaviours that we might wish to believe don’t happen, but they do: in each case, communication is either their direct or indirect victim. (For those that live in hope that these are not mainstream concerns, bear in mind that this list comes not from McKinsey or Deloitte but the American College of Sports Medicine.) And where facts are in short supply, fiction will tend to fill the gap.

If your organisation is experiencing any of the problems here, it is not only discussions around under-performance that will fall under the euphemistic heading of ‘Difficult Conversations’. ASK can help your organisation where an ability and willingness to challenge under-performance is a performance management issue. As specialists in behavioural change, we can also work with you on the broader management and leadership issue that underpin them.

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