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Is ‘Communication’ really the problem?

Many leaders I work with seek feedback from staff on what they can improve. Often by anonymous surveys*. There will usually be a response along the lines of “Not enough communication” or “Poor communication.”

*could the fact that the survey is anonymous tell us more about the culture than we’d like to admit?

‘Communication’, in this context, is a vague, catch-all word that is difficult to quantify. It leaves the leader with few options to take action. It’s something respondents can throw out there without having to take any further responsibility.

Most times the leader or organisation is communicating a lot. There is no shortage of information being passed around. So what could the real problem be?

Perhaps we should start by asking a better question. What is it about the flow of information that may not be meeting people’s needs at work?

People need to know that leaders care. They need to have their competence acknowledged and see their progress. They need to have choice. In this case, around how they take part in the flow of information.

The response “communication” may be saying something else:

“We don’t feel included in decision making”.
“We don’t feel like the leader hears us or cares about our opinion”.
“We don’t feel acknowledged for the work we’ve done”.
“We don’t get to choose how we give or receive information”.

So what can the leader do to understand what their staff are saying? Even if you don’t hold a leadership position you can use these ideas in any setting where you seek feedback.

Vague responses may point to a lack of psychological safety. Meaning, people do not feel like they can be vulnerable or take interpersonal risks. Suggesting a better way to manage the flow of information can be a risk for someone. What if they feel dumb or get shut down for their suggestion?

Check out this survey and useful guide developed by Google’s re:Work to foster psychological safety in teams. This provides the platform for feedback that leads to meaningful progress.

When looking to get feedback from your team, ask specific and open questions. General questions about improvements will generate general (and vague) answers. Specific, contextual questions will generate responses that can you can learn from.

For example: “Last week, when we introduced X new initiative, in what ways did you feel you could contribute to the roll out plan?” They have to respond with more than a “yes” or “no” about a specific situation. It also shows people that you actually want to do something about what they tell you.

Finally, give them choices in how they can respond. Email, team meeting, one-on-one meeting or another vehicle they might prefer. This will give them a sense of control over part of the process.

So when looking for feedback from others consider these three questions.

1. Have I created a safe environment?
2. Have a been specific enough?
3. Have I provided choices for response?

Reach out to me here to talk further about ways to create psychological safety in your team.

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.

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