In Lessons in Communicating Change, on her Body Talk blog, Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, challenges conventional wisdom on leadership communication in organizational change.
In particular, she stresses the critical importance of informal communication - the "complex web of social interactions and informal networks" as she puts it – which accounts for upwards of 70% of all organizational communication. Her post goes on to underline the powerful role that she sees non-verbal signals playing in the communication process.
Her point about the power of informal communication is well made. And yet, as she says, conventional practice continues to place emphasis almost exclusively on formal, structured ways of 'getting the message across'.
From this standpoint, effective communication is seen as the ability of leaders to get the 'right facts', to the 'right people', at the 'right time'. And yet, it’s not facts that people act upon – especially those that are neatly packaged in the form of organization-wide communication programmes.
Much more significant in determining people’s behaviours are the ways that they perceive, interpret and evaluate these and other ‘facts’, through their everyday, ‘local’ conversations and interactions. And these perceptions, interpretations and evaluations are governed by emotion as well as reason. Feelings as well as facts.
As people strive to make sense of formal statements, policies and plans - and as they decide how best to act - informal, ‘shadow-side’ dynamics move centre-stage. Amongst other things, these include the dynamics of:
- power and politics
- social relationships and processes
- individuals’ needs, hopes and concerns
- informal, get-the-job-done networks
- paradox and contradiction.
These hidden, messy and informal dynamics are inextricably woven into the fabric of all organizations. And they manifest themselves through the informal, ‘shadow’ conversations that Goman suggests account for the bulk of organizational communication.
Underlying all of this are other powerful influencers of the ways in which people make sense of the world and decide how to act. These are the emerging patterns of taken-for-granted assumptions that tend to channel sense making and action taking down 'culturally acceptable' pathways. These patterns imperceptibly influence sense-making within the organization and are simultaneously affected by it. The more often that people make sense of events in a particular way, the more likely it is that they will continue to make similar sense of events in the future – deepening still further the existing sense-making ‘channels’. At the same time, the conversational process holds the capacity for novelty to arise and shifts in the cultural (sense-making) patterns to emerge. This active process of shared sense making is what 'organizational culture' is all about.
Within this, Goman highlights the significant impact that organizational symbols and leadership behaviours have on the sense-making process. As she advises leaders, "what they [staff] see is more powerful than what you say ". In this sense, leaders (at all levels in an organization) cannot not communicate. Everything that they say and do, as well as the ways in which they say it and do it, sends messages to staff about their own – and by inference the organization’s – values, priorities, expectations and so on. Unfortunately for managers, it’s those who are observing their actions, and attending to the non-verbal cues in their words and body language, who decide what those messages mean! This is why, in Informal Coalitions, I refer to managers’ everyday interactions with their staff as "moments of leadership truth". And it’s why I argue that leaders, as role models, need to "think culturally" when leading change and managing performance in their organizations.
Informal Coalitions therefore calls on managers to reframe their view of what leadership communication is all about. This is reflected in a perception-shifting framework, the Leadership Communication Grid, which invites leaders to see their real communication challenge as one of moving beyond formal, structured message passing (and even structured workshops and dialogue sessions), to:
- engage with the dynamic networks of everyday conversations and interactions through which people continually make sense of what’s going on and decide how to act;
- recognize that their own informal interactions and everyday behaviours provide a powerful role model (good or bad!) for people’s ongoing sense-making and action-taking.
From an informal coalitions perspective, then, communication is not only the means through which people find out about change, it is the essence of change itself. As the content and patterns of conversation change, so do the actions that people take. And so does the organization.