Breaking the Sound Barrier

An agency is only as good as its ability to communicate.

If your agency has conducted an employee survey lately, a familiar issue probably percolated to the top of the problem list: communication. Managers often are criticized for being bad at it-both in terms of the amount of information and the manner in which it's delivered. Executives convinced they have clarified the "why" and "how" of their agencies' strategies often find themselves adjusting goals because no one has followed through.

All this adds up to productivity loss, culture clashes, relationship and morale problems, and misunderstandings. So, what's a manager to do? Here are five ways to improve the communication paradigm:

1. Hang up hierarchies. We are in the midst of a shake-up of assumptions about communication. The old approach views organizations as top-down, hierarchical systems. Executives think and plan, everyone else does the work. The organization becomes rigid and closed off from the environment, customers and from insights of the people who do the work.

The new communication doesn't eliminate hierarchies (accountability structures are always important). But they are supplemented and sometimes replaced by networks of communications that are open, operative and multidirectional. Everyone is a communicator: a sender and receiver of information. Some individuals and teams sit at critical nodes in the network-and they can be from any level in the organization, or perhaps be an outside supplier or customer. The executive's job is to staff the critical nodes with skilled communicators and to create an expectation that information will flow when and where it's needed.

2. Customize the message. Consider this common situation. An organization is about to downsize, and the director prepares the following memo: "We face major budget cuts and must reduce our staff by 5 percent. This action will enable us to restructure in a way that should make us efficient for the challenges ahead. Our new online capabilities will enable us to deliver service with fewer people. We will inform those affected by the end of this week." The next communication is a pink slip in 5 percent of the agency's in-boxes.

Messages with potentially high impact-both positive and negative-require special attention to groups that are affected, including getting representatives involved in planning and problem solving. The message should answer questions like "What additional support will be available to me?" And the language should sincerely acknowledge the personal impact: "We will do everything we can to help you make this a smooth transition."

Critical events affecting employment and the skills mix make indelible marks on the organization's psyche. Communication should raise rather than lower the organization's trust and respect quotient.

3. Establish a partnership style. An organization's culture is shaped by the most dominant of four communication styles: Conflicted. Relationships often are adversarial. Trust is low. People withhold information and blame others.

Dependent. Boss-to-subordinate language is prevalent. Knowledge often fails to move upward and sideways to influence larger decisions.

Independent. Major goals are shared, but people work independently in pursuit of them. They seek out information they need to do their job, but it might not involve the two-way communication that spawns innovation and learning.

Partnership. Two-way communication expands the information pool and the range of options. People work together across levels and functions, leading to greater innovation and commitment.

4. Adopt communication-centered management processes. Without communication, strategy can't be developed or implemented, priorities set or redirected, or groups aligned. The critical management processes that link people to goals too often become disconnected from the real needs of the organization and its customers. The result: excessive paper-pushing, game-playing and defensiveness. Strategy development, budget formulation, team and individual goal-setting, prioritizing and performance feedback-all must cast off their bureaucratic shells and become living information-sharing, decision-making and problem-solving conversations.

5. Build one-to-one skills. In a more partnership-oriented and engaged culture, everyone needs skills in information sharing, dealing with emotional issues, having discussions that broaden options rather than defend positions, and communicating across levels of authority. It's up to organizations to provide training and reinforcement for these more advanced skills.

Evolution and innovation usually start at the fringes. The authoritarian hierarchy marginalizes discrepant voices, dragging the organization to the bottom of the pack. Other factors often are blamed-budgets, policy, unions, corruption, the previous management or administration, the economy. But the root cause often is traditional assumptions about organizations and their design. Communication practices reflect those assumptions-and changing them can change everything for the better.

Pat McLagan, chairman of the Washington management consulting firm McLagan International Inc., is a past speaker at Government Executive's Excellence in Government conference.

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