Communication is the Key

Communication is agreed as one of the central tenets of a healthy organization. We all know its value, and leaders would decry its importance in their organizations. So how do so many get it wrong? Why is poor communication one of the most often cited reasons for conflict, mistakes and failure? In a recent survey, out of 400 corporations that replied, they estimated $37 billion was lost due to employee misunderstanding or errors caused by poor communication (citation). With this kind of fiscal impact, what do we do to improve our organizational effectiveness in this area?

There is a plethora of information available with advice and tricks to help with communication. And to be quite candid, it often appears to be pretty basic advice: use humor, show empathy, make eye contact, etc. etc. Page after page of helpful articles found online with anywhere from 5 to 21 tips on how to communicate more effectively. One has to wonder if these suggestions are all too basic. Effective communication is layered and nuanced. There are so many levels to address: interpersonal, group or teams, departmental, regional and national, and that’s just a sampling of the internal constituents. External audiences need just as much attention, and can be even harder to reach. We must be purposeful for each audience in message content, frequency, and accessibility. Tailoring specific messages to each group helps the audience to gain clarity and insight in what you are trying to say. Non-verbal content is more powerful that written or verbal messaging. And what about passive communication that comes from our ever-present digital footprint? Good communication is a never-ending effort that requires constant attention.

And yet…

There is something to the simplicity of effective communication. Those articles with the quick buzz words of important ideas:

  • Learn to listen.
  • Understand their needs.
  • Be visible and present.
  • Make time and make it a priority.

These hallmarks of effective communication are basic relational tools, and they are accurate, even in their seeming obvious nature. They are necessities of effective communication because they are foundational to good relationships. If we apply to principles of healthy relationships to all our communication efforts, we will reap the benefits of not only good communication but also good connection. And the better our relationships with our audiences, the higher propensity for the message to be received with its accurate intention.

While relationships are certainly not a prerequisite for effective communication, they can be a beneficial by-product. Good communication is a building block for trust (do you trust someone who gets the message wrong more than they get it right? Who doesn’t do what they say? Who doesn’t tell you the truth?) And when good communication happens well repeatedly, we build trust with the messenger, whether it’s an individual or an organization. This trust becomes the foundation upon which the relationship begins and grows.

At Apricot Consulting, we believe it’s all about relationships. Effective communication is integral to building and maintaining any relationship – interpersonal or organizational, internal or external, customers or employees, leaders or front-line workers.

So, learn to listen. Hear and understand what your audiences are saying. Communication by nature is two-way; it’s not just the message you send. It’s even more important to hear the reply.

Understand their needs. Grasp their perspective to better interpret their message, and target yours. You have to know your audience to understand these needs. Take the time.

Be visible and present. Make sure your people know you are there, and when you’re there, you are paying attention.

Make time and make it a priority. Like good relationships, quality communication takes time. That difficult conversation is not going to happen well if it’s squeezed into a hallway meeting. People won’t have clarity and comprehension if you are constantly rushing to the next thing. Unapologetically build time into your day to ensure you have margin to finish the story and allow – even ask – others to contribute.

The benefits are profound. Stronger relationships help reduce conflict, build teams, and deepen employee satisfaction and engagement. Human beings thirst for community, and trusting relationships are what form this feeling of intrinsic connection. Effective communication is the key to making it happen.

The Soft Stuff is the Hard Stuff

At Apricot Consulting, we are fond of saying, “we work on the soft stuff, because it really is the hard stuff.” Many organizations spend diligent amounts of time on strategy, financials, and product flow. And these are all important aspects of business. But they’re not what generally cause organizations to go sideways.

The people issues – the soft stuff – are far more likely to cause disruption and inefficiencies that have serious impact on the bottom line. Things like:

  • Difficult, candid conversations
  • Shallow workplace relationships
  • Frantic pace which leaves no margin for people
  • Hiding in your comfort zone
  • Addressing workplace conflict
  • Rapidly changing work environments

Creating awareness of these issues is the start. Ask yourself these questions to start to challenge your daily habits:

  • Have I been deliberate – and unapologetic – about making time for my team?
  • When did I last ask someone about what’s going on in their life?
  • What difficult conversations do I need to have? And when am I going to plan adequate time for them?
  • When did I last stretch myself and take a risk?
  • Do I have any space in my schedule to handle the unexpected?
  • Am I anticipating and preparing for inevitable change?

Apricot on Purpose

Organizational purpose is really a question of identity: who are you and why do you exist? It’s the very depth of why you do what you do. It provides meaning, the reason you exist, for each and every person connected from the CEO to the newest employee.

By clearly identifying the purpose of an organization, it creates a focus that should drive every important decision: strategic, human resources, even physical location. Purpose is the foundation upon which every building block is laid. If it doesn’t align with the core purpose, it shouldn’t be done.

Clearly, purpose is distinctly different from vision, however they are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Vision is about where we are going and how we might get there. Vision can and should change and develop. Purpose is the identifying bedrock upon which others measure the reason for being.

At Apricot, we go even farther to talk about individual purpose as your vocation; building on the idea that we have an in-built sense of calling. In fact, the wordvocation comes from the Latin word ‘vocare’ which means “to call”. When you align your personal sense of purpose with an organization’s identity, you posture yourself for a long-term success story.

There are some key questions to being the process of checking your organization’s health as it relates to purpose.

  • Does your organization have a clearly defined purpose?
  • Do people know it, and can they talk about it with clear understanding?
  • Does it regularly impact the way you operate?

When organizations face crisis or persistent challenges, we usually look back to the identified purpose. Inevitably, somewhere in the journey, they have strayed away from their “reason for being” and need to course-correct to regain their sense of meaning. When purpose is lost (or never clearly defined to begin), organizations drift like a ship without an anchor, unsure of their fixed place, both in the marketplace and in the minds of their people.

Purposeful attention on identifying and articulating this central tenet of any organization will provide a meaningful opportunity for employees to understand and own why they come to work each day and drive decisions that propel groups toward success.

Lego Serious Play and Psychological Safety

In a recent NY Times article, Google revealed the outcomes of several years of research around team effectiveness. One of the key indicators of a successful team was the concept of psychological safety. This sense of mental well-being, based on the freedom to explore ideas and solutions without fear of negative repercussions, is what creates the environment that allows teams to thrive. By fostering a place where risk is accepted and exploration is encouraged, people have the willingness to contribute brave ideas and investigate uncertain possibilities.

There is much searching and conversation on how to create this culture in all varieties of teams so they can benefit from sense of safety. Reaching the best outcomes, which result from diversity of opinion and contribution, is central to moving any business or organization forward. Research suggests that key elements for building psychological safety include:

  • Collecting opinions before the group communicates to avoid idea-blending which leads to groupthink
  • Actively seeking disparate views in order to hear all perspectives
  • Intentionally seek out voices that have less “power” or authority
  • Don’t voice your opinion until all participants have a chance to contribute
  • Create an environment where interrupting is not permitted
  • When multiple possible solutions exist, test ideas to determine validity

At Apricot, we believe answers are often found within the expertise of the existing team. It is our job to help them be unearthed and by fostering a sense ofpsychological safety and mutual trust, we create both time and opportunity for thisto happen. After training in facilitation of the LEGO Serious Play technique, it was clear that this unique methodology is an ideal tool to encourage these behaviors and nurture this sense of safety in any team.

What is LEGO SERIOUS PLAY, you ask?

LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® is a facilitated meeting, communication and problem-solving method, where participants are led through a series of questions, which leads them deeper and deeper to find solutions.

Each participant builds his or her own three-dimensional LEGO model in response to the facilitator’s questions using specially selected LEGO bricks. These 3D models serve as the basis for group discussion, knowledge sharing, problem solving and decision-making.

The purpose of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is to maximize the full potential, insight, confidence and commitment of all the people around the table. It enables story-telling and meaning-making through individual and group contributions to team outcomes.

LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is a method of team communication and discovery that allows our clients to be more creative and innovative, which generates improved ideas and outcomes. By utilizing techniques that engage every person around the table through individual story-making, and pre-empting groupthink with specific formulas for contribution so each individual is heard and their contribution valued. It generates input from all voices present, which ensures that maximum potential solutions are heard.

This is a significant opportunity to develop psychological safety in teams in an age where the fear of speaking out is real and present. Concrete solutions to culture challenges are hard to find, and LEGO SERIOUS PLAY provides a clear answer.

Apricot Consulting’s Susan Barton is a certified LEGO SERIOUS PLAY facilitator.

“It’s All About Relationships” – How Relational Focus Drives A Successful Team

We’ve all experienced ‘that guy’ in our teams that wants to win at all costs, needs to saveface by never being wrong, or can’t help always having the last word. The “me-first”mentality pervades western culture which typically rewards individualistic behavior and searches for the super-star.

In my experience, however, the power of team, collaboration, and community is rising to the surface as the more effective way to reach the best outcomes. It is often more cumbersome, time consuming, and even sometimes painful, but when managed well, it yields innovative ideas, more refined solutions, and stronger teams.

Under the surface of any team lies the relationships that connect the individuals together. This web of interconnectivity is intricate in its detail, and usually unseen and undefined by those involved, but its impact can mean the success or failure of any group or project.

At Apricot, we liken this to the root structure of a tree. As a consulting firm, we work with clients on their organizational health, focusing on seven key areas: Purpose, Leadership, Innovation, Communication, Accountability, Growth, & Stakeholder Engagement. These are the “branches” of the tree in which we can look for healthy fruit or diseased limbs.

Underneath the tree is the root structure that not only holds the tree up, but is responsible for connecting each of the branches and is key to delivering nutrients throughout the entire organism. Relationships are the foundation upon which we build the entire people side of the business. They are how we hear and be heard, how we know and be known, and the lens through which we interpret all our interpersonal activities. In fact, it is also through relationships among colleagues that the strategic side of business ultimately gets negotiated, decided and ultimately communicated as well.

Strong relationships, in all aspects of business, underpin the seven key branches of Organisational Health.
Strong relationships, in all aspects of business, underpin and connect the seven key branches of Organisational Health.

Nurturing our relationships is therefore one of our key responsibilities to be effective in the workplace. Internally and externally, we cannot get business done without them. And how do we best do this?

  • Take time
    By having margin in our schedules to connect with people beyond the next “yes, I’ll get that done” or “No, I can’t make it” we communicate that they have value to us as people, not simply work machines. Make the effort to call, connect, and catch-up.
  • Be Authentic
    Be the real you. People sense “fakeness” a mile away and it only serves to keep your relationship at surface level because it doesn’t build trust. It’s ok to acknowledge who you are, where you’re at, and even the things you’re concerned about. It makes you human, like the rest of us!
  • Actually Care
    When you take the time to listen to your boss, peers and subordinates, you’ll learn things about them – personal hopes, work anxieties, and inane preferences. Actually doing something with this information such as building a professional development plan to reach those personal hopes, or sourcing solutions to those work anxieties will not only show your employee that they’ve been heard, they’ll know you actually care about their personal well-being.

Relationships are the foundation of all business. If we take care of them, not only do our professional lives benefit, our personal lives will be so much the richer.