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I graduated from University College London (UCL) in 2013 with a Starred First Class BSC in Economics. Following a number of investment banking internships, which didn’t quite incite the excitement I w...

Sitara Kurian-Patel, Consultant

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The amount of material available on how to communicate effectively is staggering, yet staff surveys continue to highlight the need to improve communication within organisations.

This is a theme that recurs across all industries, but is still underestimated and often dealt with as a “nice to have” rather than at the core of a successful organisation. It is easy to forget that the most advanced technical knowledge can be almost worthless if you cannot communicate effectively what you do and why it is useful.

In our experience, there are some simple steps that can be taken which will significantly improve the way in which your organisation communicates and, therefore, operates.

Focus on Middle Management

What good is a vision statement or a roadmap for the future if only the leadership team have seen and understand it?

The most frequent blockages in information cascading through an organisation come at the “middle management” level. These are the individuals that have access to leadership teams, but do not always communicate what they know to others. This divide between the top and bottom of an organisation makes it impossible for there to be a sense of working together, or even a genuine understanding for employees as to what the value of their job is.

Leaders understand that they must act as role models, but managers have an equally important part to play. In fact, if you ask the majority of employees who influences them the most in the work place, the answer would be their line manager.

Leadership teams must understand that it is not enough that they communicate; they need to create an environment where every manager understands that communication is a key part of their job because they are the key conduit of information flowing around the organisation. This flow includes feedback to the leadership team, who need to embrace it if they are to avoid the perception that being too open could have other “consequences”.

Create a formal structure for communicating

Has your organisation invested in communications training for managers?

Another reason why the importance of communicating does not gain traction is because there are rarely any formal structures around it. If the answer to the above question is no, then it is time to make communication a core component of your staff training programme. Day-to-day work often means that employees, particularly management, have no time to reflect and think about how they have been communicating. Investing in training can be a kick-start for positive communication habits.

Another key step to take is to formalise the communication responsibilities of all employees in their performance plans, again particularly focusing on middle management. Communication is a management responsibility, so it must be treated as such and those who communicate successfully should be recognised for their efforts.

Organisations can also mandate frequent communication. Waiting too long to communicate is a frequent occurrence and usually a mistake. Delaying until every last detail has been sorted before informing employees of a change or relevant piece of news can have disastrous effects with rumours starting before any official communication has taken place. Our suggestion is to agree a definite (recurring) time, place or event where employees can receive updates. Even if all you are saying is that a plan is being created, this avoids stories gaining momentum that you cannot control.

Several managers are natural communicators, but taking these simple steps formally recognises the effort that everybody makes and forces action from those who struggle to see its importance.

Know your audience

Effective organisations know that a key factor of success is the strength of their internal business relationships. This is not simply the exchange of information, but understanding the motivations and feelings that lay behind behaviours. Building deeper connections improves teamwork and increases trust. If managers are encouraged to observe the behaviour of the teams around them and understand what motivates these behaviours, an organisation stands a good chance of building deep, lasting relationships.

There are some key factors to consider:

  • Understanding what employees are concerned about is the most important question to deal with. The question employees consistently want answered (even if they don’t dare ask it) is “what does this mean for me?” Being prepared to answer this question openly at any time will mean that staff gain confidence in their management team, even if they do not always like what they hear.
  • Have employees been consulted about the topic before? If this is the first they have heard of it, understand that there will be several questions and, more often than not, there will be a reluctance to accept anything that is perceived as a change.
  • Think about the language you are using; is it ambiguous or full of jargon? Use “the grandmother test” – i.e. if you were speaking to your grandmother would she understand what you were saying. It can be arrogant to assume that all terminology used in the workplace will be understood by everyone.
  • Think about how you are going to communicate. Face to face is usually preferable, and is the only way to establish lasting relationships, but think about your audience. Are you unnecessarily delaying conveying key information because you are waiting for a face to face meeting? If appropriate send a text message, or if you know that a certain individual would feel more comfortable receiving an email, send them an email. If you are trying to be more creative, how about a podcast? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but there is always a way to communicate wherever you are.
  • Listen. Always listen to your staff and answer the questions they ask you, not the ones you want to answer. If you do not know the answer, acknowledge the fact and endeavour to find out.
  • Learn from your mistakes. You will not get all of your communications right the first time, but don’t be put off if you make a mistake. Each mistake will help you understand your audience better.
  • Consider the location. Is your place of work the most appropriate place to convey all communications? If you are conveying a formal message then quite probably the office is the appropriate place to be, but for a one on one conversation maybe it is not.
  • Do employees feel that they can communicate with their management team outside “formal” communication sessions? How approachable do management appear to be? If managers are sat at their desk all day with headphones on, or are always “too busy” to have a conversation then this behaviour needs to be eradicated.

Communication is frequently poorly executed in organisations, but it is fundamental to achieving excellent business outcomes. Communication throughout an organisation that has been thought through, but also formalising and endorsed by leadership, will go a long way to creating successful businesses.


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Communication Why is it so difficult to get it right?

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