In all my years in corporate communication and consulting, the one inevitable—and generally unanswered—question I’ve heard has been: “What does the event/decision/strategy mean to me?” In workplace communication, that question is particularly important because such matters generally have an impact on people’s work lives, if not their lives as a whole. In a digital culture, it is an increasingly difficult question to answer because of the impersonal nature of today’s mass communication technology. Intranets, mobile devices and the like are geared to the masses, not to individual needs—which is where team leaders should come in.
Team leaders as the prime communication source
In most organizations, team leaders have been widely ignored as the human communication source that they should be. Much of that can be laid at the feet of senior leaders who either play things close to the vest or who don’t trust their underlings to provide “the right answers.” The result is that team leaders operate with little or no information beyond the same rumor mill that team members access.
And it’s all complicated by the research findings that show senior leaders, for the most part, have low trust rates and, therefore, low credibility among team members. A retired educator friend of mine asked me in wonderment recently, “Why don’t we ever learn that people will invent their own versions of reality in the absence of real information?” I tried to explain the unfathomable facts. Leaders are conditioned to talk about “the what” and give short shrift to “the why.” Or they think that workers “don’t care” or “wouldn’t understand.” Both of which are code for either leadership arrogance or ignorance about the needs of the people they lead.
After all these years of dealing with this phenomenon, I often find myself worn out by the task of advocating for greater openness in institutional organizations and tempted to despair that “they will ever learn.” But then I remember that the years have seen greater progress than I sometimes credit; the old autocracies are breaking down and some notable leaders are behaving in enlightened ways that are a dramatic contrast to the bad old days of deliberately withholding information and relying on secrecy and confidentiality.
What technology can’t solve
What worries me more these days is the tendency of the techno-utopians to depend on whiz-bang technology and social media within organizations to carry the freight. As wonderful as today’s technological media are in delivering raw information at blinding speed, they still fail against the standard of: What does it mean to me? And employees continue to face the daunting task of connecting the dots without an understanding of the big picture and their organizations place in it—in a word the context in which the organization functions and in which they live.
Add the risk employees fear in confronting or seeming to disrespect defensive leaders equipped with fragile egos, and social media is powerless to enable the candid “conversations” that its advocates once believed would take place between leaders and workers. Its various forms may work between equals, but its effectiveness is muted in power relationships in which the powerful have the means to punish dissent.
However we go about coping with the above leadership issues, I believe that the real and most pressing organizational communication challenge remains the delivery of context and meaning in today’s digital world, providing answers to that eternal question of “what does it mean to me?”
All the rest is mere noise and window dressing.
Written by: Roger D’Aprix. You may find the original article here.