Ten Ways To Fix a Nasty Culture by Communicating

About ten years ago there was an upscale eat-in Chinese restaurant in the Danbury Square Mall with a huge marquee sign proclaiming in neon that it was the home of “DYNASTY RESTAURANT.” Of course, one cardinal rule of communication is to always be aware of the message you are sending. For some reason, the owners of this restaurant chose to ignore the maintenance on their sign even after there were several months of nightly blaring the message “….NASTY RESTAURANT” through the darkness to passersby. They are no longer in business there.

Sometimes it is not so easy to determine that a simple fix could improve the culture of communicating. It could be that we never step away and look at the signs from a distance as a reality check. Most of the time, we find reasons or excuses to continue with the message even if it is wrong.  In business, the first law of a stagnant culture is “But we have always done it that way” and we fail to expend the energy needed to change directions. Here is a list of ten nasty communication situations that need some effort to move to the right direction:

  1. Ignoring the “social” part of social networking – Adoption of a Facebook page or Twitter feed does not give a business an edge without interaction. Company Facebook pages that are highly regulated and comments deleted  are like a neon sign with letters missing. Why are they afraid of someone posting a negative comment? Failure in openness in an age of openness means that the message is sterile and boring… like a press release. It communicates, “We want you to LIKE us, but we don’t particularly like you.” Look at company Twitter accounts. How many actually follow-back individuals who follow them? There is definitely a message about the company culture that says, “Don’t bother. We are not listening.”
  2. Managing difficult conversations – In a perfect world, everybody is nice to each other. Managers need to be able to buck the human tendency to be a friend to their employees at all times and learn how to communicate tough messages when necessary. Some of the primary reasons for the failure of most performance appraisal systems are inflated results to prevent a confrontation, or the old “bell curve” excuse which forces everyone to be average. Both of these instances cause a blur in communication which makes changing course difficult.
  3. Making job interviews meaningful – An interview is a dialog form of communication meaning that the interviewer and interviewee should both get something out of the experience. If either one does all of the talking nothing is communicated. The candidate must learn something about the company culture as well as key expectations of the job. The company has to see the candidate as an employee, fitting into the culture, and contributing to company goals. Cultural fit is important, but so is diversity of thought. Creating a culture of clones would not even require interviewing.
  4. Challenging without hostility – Most MBA programs do not teach the philosophy of MBEW, or Managing By Executive Whim, but it is alive and well. Likewise, there are training courses offered for leadership, but nobody ever learns followership. If there were to be no differences in opinion the organization is most likely sterile and not producing results. Communications flowing freely can have the tendency to create tension and disagreement, however when managed in a positive and effective way it encourages a culture of creativity and innovation.
  5. Taking politics too far – In the beehive of industry there is no queen bee being served by devoted drones. The complexity of human interactions… and egos… force us into box charts where there is a clear delineation of duties and responsibilities. Necessary order can go too far when there is an absolutely soundproof silo built around any layer on the chart. Communication up the chain of command is difficult if nobody at the top listens. And downward communication stops short when it fails to answer the needs of the lower boxes. A culture of mutual respect cuts through politics and makes understanding possible.
  6. Avoiding agenda-less meetings – Standing meetings without purpose are a waste of time. Communication of the agenda beforehand allows for participants to arrive prepared and with the correct information. There is no better evidence of MBEW than attendance at a meeting because the boss said to show up because she is the boss. To avoid the “gotcha meeting” where participants are ill prepared and afraid to speak, the delegated leader announces the agenda items, leads an orderly discussion and closes with an agreement on results and actions. Follow-up communication is often needed to make sure that all participants heard the same message and are working toward the same results.
  7. Improving telephone communications – Time management teaches us that one of the biggest interruptions to be endured is the telephone. It is also probably our most useful tool. There is some sort of psychological force that compels us to pick up a ringing phone even if the room is on fire. Knowing that this is an intrusion on someone’s time puts this in a different light. If you are calling someone and it rolls to voicemail leave a message. If you don’t then you probably didn’t need to call in the first place. When you do leave a message, clearly state the reason and urgency of the call. If you are calling someone who doesn’t know you, spell your name and repeat the call back number. There cannot be any further communications without a callback so make it easy to do.
  8. Creating effective email communications – We have become a world of email fanatics and most of us do not do it well. All business communications should have the topic of the email clearly stated in the subject line. There should be only one topic per email to keep it short and simple. Copying the whole world on every email is a waste of everybody’s time. It is generally accepted protocol that you copy anyone you mention in the body of the email. If you expect a reply, put all of the expected respondents in the TO: line and not the CC: line. If you get a message CC’ed to you, just read it and don’t answer. If your comment were wanted you would have been TO’ed. Better yet, pick up the phone. Above all, never “Reply to all” unless it is really important to everyone on the distribution list or you just really have a need to show the whole world that you are an idiot.
  9. Listening to the chief grapes – The company grapevine is a key source of information, but it is not necessarily the most accurate. In difficult times, the grapevine may be believed and trusted before official company communications. In a worst case scenario, the lack of real information will create a void that will be filled by something regardless of whether it is right or wrong. For management it is important to get a handle on the unofficial infrastructure of an organization to know the opinion generators especially if they are naysayers. Communication is nonexistent when neither side knows what the other is thinking. It is not an easy task to locate the chief grapes, but if you don’t listen you will never find them.
  10. Maintaining an environment for one-on-one feedback – One of the most valuable team building experiences is honest feedback to and from mentors and respected employees. Everyone should be aware of the positive value of constructive feedback and provide as much information as you receive. The openness of this form of individual communication evolves from building strong personal as well as professional relationships. It should be an honor to receive feedback and trusted as if you were looking into a mirror at yourself.

This list could go on forever because there is so much bad communication in business. This issue is compounded by the fact that leadership failings and artificially driven political objectives can interfere with sending a clear message. No single person regardless of position in the organization can do it alone. The solution lies with everyone accepting the responsibility for clearing the air and providing the external force to change the inertia of existing communications. No one can do it alone, but everyone can contribute to a fix. Don’t be the static into the system. Don’t feed a hostile environment. Foster a culture of clear, concise, and coherent communication.