10 Keys to Building an Internal Culture of Communication

by Aaron J. Henninger

1. Set Expectations Early—your official communications shouldn’t just be hello and goodbye.

I have had the great privilege of providing leadership communication education and training to leaders across government and industry. Time and time again, my students gravitate to the seminal question of how best to establish a culture of communication within their organizations, especially in this era of social media. There is an immediate desire to wrestle with how best to present an organizational culture to the public, skipping over the communication needs of the internal audience.

I am quick to caution these students that they should avoid becoming ensnared in the trap of only thinking externally, thereby overlooking the greatest force multiplier in your communication, the members of your team.

A new leader’s first priority next to learning the mission needs to be learning the people, the culture and taking the pulse of the internal communication posture of the organization. Some organizations excel at internal communication, placing great expectation on an incoming leader to maintain and perpetuate clear guidance and communication from the top. Conversely, some organizations have atrophied with regard to internal communication. Starved for information, forgotten in the push to ‘accomplish the mission’, the receivers of the initial information begin to develop immense expectations and a short window to be convinced of the possibility that things can improve.

Beyond policy letters, emails and edicts— valued communication requires being clear as to your own leadership philosophy, the approach you will take to order and discipline, making an honest assessment of where the organization is and how it should progress. All of these decisions involve your people, taking the activity beyond the cerebral exercise and necessitating a concise explanation of all that comes from having made these crucial decisions.

Unfortunately, in some organizations, the only communication that members of the team get are the initial speech or email with regard to “what I want to do” and the wrap-up “what we did” on the way out to the next assignment. This episodic interaction damages not only the team, but also the senior leader credibility. The individual may leave the organization but often the reputation and the perceptions follow them to their next position.

2. Be True To Your Word

Once you have determined and initially communicated your stance regarding the sort of environment you would like to establish and sustain, force yourself to do the difficult work of staying true to that intent. Every day, issues will arise that will challenge your very notion of what you are and are not willing to accept, permit, endorse or enact. Change is to be expected, however, it is not to go unaddressed or unexplained. Far too often, those within an organization learn through experience or through inadvertent or incomplete explanations from word of mouth, not from leadership. Allowing confusion to fester within the ranks of the organization not only erodes cohesion and commitment to mission, it places the leader in the untenable role of attempting to assess the welfare of a organization with incomplete information and potentially compromised credibility; all borne form miscommunication, false perceptions and assumptions. A communication culture is something that is organic, that must be continually cultivated and nurtured.

3. Let Listening Inform What You Say

Take time to gather data, not only from your inner circle, but also from the people that work up and down the chain in the organization. Often, the most useful information you can glean is from those who are removed from the “issue of the day”, only seeking the advice of your immediate peers is not only intellectual exclusionary, it’s also dangerous. Email, shared drives and reports have quietly swept the communication landscape within organizations like a locust swarm, blacking out the light of dialogue and replacing it with negative or affirmative replies. As a leader, you have to be willing to listen in order to know what to ask. This is true at both the macro and micro levels of communication within and external to your organization. Ultimately, you must be willing to listen if you want to be heard.

4. Realize That Not Saying Something Says Something

Not addressing rumors, speculation, sinking morale and the like is not a strategy and it definitely is not saving you from the hard job of taking on the core issue. There is true power in communication; the power to inspire, the power to correct, the power to fill the void between nothing and something. People are always listening, especially when nothing is being said. Avoidance is not an option when it comes to communication, at least not for a sustained period of time. Communication is a high risk, high return activity—it is not only for when there is good news, it is especially for when there is mixed or downright bad news.

5. Don’t Play the Margins of Truth and Half-Truth; They Will Know or Find Out

“Don’t spook the herd” never worked as an information strategy. Withholding parts of the truth, no matter how well intentioned, is destructive to organization trust and mission accomplishment. If you trust your people with the mission, trust them with the truth. In the same way that you demand those within your organization “share up”, it is incumbent upon a commander to share, listen and listen some more. Most people can handle bad or difficult news, almost entirely no group of people can handle being misdirected, kept in the dark or left wondering. Again, you may never have complete or perfect information. Don’t let this keep you from getting out in front of the issue. Begin to think beyond a message that is to get beyond the immediacy of what you’re going to say, and begin thinking about what you are going to start discussing. Having a conversation is much easier and may take more time to play out than attempting a singular statement or issuance of a policy.

6. Empower Others to Have a Voice within the Organization

Your words mean the most when expressed by others in the organization. That is to say, words are only words when voiced by the sender, but when a receiver interprets, adopts and proliferates these concepts in their own words, the begin to internalize, demonstrate and proliferate ideas as their own. Often, the leader may have the notion, but others within the organization hit upon the complete approach that leads to adoption. Let go of the ownership with regard to the message and allow those in the organization to have the floor at the most beneficial and appropriate of times. This requires not only the fortitude to empower and support those within your organizations to find their voice, but to also devote serious time and focus to listening and adjusting to the knowledge you gather.

7. If you’re going to solicit feedback, mean it, don’t punish/ostracize

If you ask for feedback, mean it! Too many leaders say they have an open door policy, a desire to hear from the team, but in practice, the thin veneer of approachability gives way to position, status and authority. This reneging on offers of true two-way communication not only imperils the opportunity for collaboration, but also destroys the value and penetration of one-way directives. If an individual or group feels ‘tuned out’, the resultant behavior on the part of the group is to mirror or reflect the mood by exhibiting the same sort of reaction to communication appeals. At the very heart of collaboration is good communication.

8. You Schedule A Lunch Every Day, Schedule Face to Face Interactions Daily

One of the responses that I often receive is “I don’t have time” to employ these strategies to foster and build a culture of communication within the organization. If you can make time to schedule lunch, a haircut, etc. you can certainly make time to communicate. Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending this should be an appointment on your calendar, rather it should be a ranked priority of things to accomplish throughout your day. Communication is embedded in all that we do. I am asking you to devote serious thought and purpose to the communication attached to your activities. In the same way that you practice operational risk management, consider a sort of communication risk/opportunity management. For each activity that you take on or endeavor to complete, there must be an accompanying communication component. Moreover, many of the activities that you agenda are actually communication events obscured by false targeting.

9. Be Available, But Not Omnipresent

There is a difference between leading by “walking around” and hovering. Some leaders do a great job of establishing a presence within an organization without planting a flag in the hallway or between the cubicles. Others struggle with the balance between staying behind the desk and perpetually engaging staff to the point of obstructing the day-to-day mission. Striking the appropriate balance between being available to staff and getting in the weeds requires a developed perceptiveness, allow the verbal and non-verbal feedback to indicate the appropriate balance. Being visible is only beneficial to the team if it is in support of the overall mission, not in pursuit of attaining the everyman/women perception.

10. Set and Assess Your Effects, Solicit Feedback

The charge here, as is the title of our course for leaders, is “Communicating for Effect”. Effects-based thinking can be expressed as a range of strategic planning and assessing the effectiveness of actions directed to shape an organization's overall goals and objectives. In other words, it's "how do we get what we want and how do we know we're making the right choices to get it.” That may appear fairly direct and straightforward, and conceptually it is. However, the complications begin to appear when it comes to the matter of execution. In 2010, IBM published a report about strategic planning called Capitalizing on Complexity, there are a host of recommendations offered to readers, and appropriately many of the recommendations focused on effects based processes. The report implores leaders to, "Course correct as needed. Align a few clear metrics with objectives to identify success patterns, then regularly track results as part of a continual feedback loop. Modify actions based on what is learned”.

Ultimately, a leader is only made a leader if they are connected to the people. Communication is both the connective tissue of an organization and the lifeblood of a healthy internal culture.

Invest in your communication and you invest in your mission.


Aaron HenningerComment