You live and work in a world that depends on collaboration. Whether you’re a small business owner, a department head or a member of a project group, success at work depends on people working together on common goals. Unfortunately, many teams fail to meet their objectives because of poor communication. Some of the most severe communication problems are systemic, that is, they are part of the organizational culture. Learning how to address these issues can make your team more productive, as well as creating a more positive work environment.
Below, Victor Mitchell, a successful businessman and life-long entrepreneur who has founded and turned around varied companies, sheds light on how to address these systematic communication problems at work:
Systemic communication problems are most commonly found in large organizations, though they can be a feature of small or medium-sized enterprises too. They often occur when a business has been built up by one person or by a small group. The leader (or leadership team) have always known the aims and values of the business, but as it expands they fail to communicate these to new staff. The result is an organization where people feel that they’re kept in the dark, or are being told to do things without understanding why.
Sometimes systemic communication problems arise from excessive competition between teams. If there are limited resources – whether that’s budgetary or direction from management – then a culture of secrecy and not sharing information can develop. This can create a toxic work environment, in which everyone is trying to gain an advantage over their fellow workers.
How can you recognize systemic communication problems? A staff survey can flag issues. If very few staff can explain the firm’s ethos or aims or can relate these to their standard working practice, there may be a problem. If a team or an individual tries to implement changes that are at odds with the business’ aims, it could be that the core strategy hasn’t been effectively communicated. If problems or disciplinary issues come to light that have been going on for some time, there are probably underlying systemic issues with communication. And if staff frequently complain that they work hard but feel unappreciated, then either management are unaware of what’s happening or are failing effectively to communicate praise or encouragement.
“Addressing systemic communication takes time and needs clear leadership. This change has to be driven from the top, and as such it must be a priority for the management team,” stated Victor Mitchell.
The first thing to do is to acknowledge the problem. This should be the start of the new system of communication. Ensure that everyone in the organization knows that there have been issues and set out the vision of what better communication will look like. It’s no good saying that things have been bad without going on to say what you want to achieve – people might agree with you but won’t be motivated to change without a direction of travel.
Clearly state the core values for the business and make sure that the short term and long term aims for growth and development are linked to these values. It’s no good putting up a poster saying “We aim to be a force for positive change” if staff can’t see how their day-to-day actions relate to it. If staff participate in business development, e.g., through a suggestion scheme, make sure that they are asked for ideas to achieve the stated aims for the business and not simply asked, “How can things be better?”
Incentivize collaboration rather than competition between teams and individuals. Highlight and reward examples of good practice between departments rather than within them. Look at your induction and onboarding process. Are new staff simply told what their job will involve and who their manager is, or is it communicated how they fit into the wider organization? Are they able to see where they fit into the bigger picture?
Addressing systemic communication problems at work takes time and requires drive and strong leadership. But if your organization can change from one where people are kept in the dark, don’t share skills and expertise, or do things “because that’s the way we do it,” then you will reap the rewards in increased staff retention and productivity.
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