Speak-up and start a conversation
Openness and trust: the foundation of dialogue and collaboration

Half way into 2016 it is exactly three years ago that I founded SPUP, an innovative internal comms consultancy. In this blog I’d like to share my insights so far. SPUP is short for ‘speak up’ and that’s exactly what it’s all about. Joining the conversation and participating. The way we work in organizations is changing and internal communication needs to adapt. The future belongs to the communicative organization and who better than internal communicators to help building it.

Openness and trust: the foundation of dialogue and collaboration

SPUP is founded on the insight that authentic communication can simply not take place without a climate of openness and trust. Openness and trust are a kind of Siamese twins. In communication the one cannot be separated from the other. And then there are communication climate’s two other dimensions: participation and supportiveness. The former is about whether people feel that their voice counts, the latter whether people experience a climate of collaboration or rather one of ‘every man for himself’.

Communication climate is about feelings. Feelings dictate whether people are open to messages and pleas from the top, are willing to go the extra mile and are inclined to cooperate. In short, there is a direct line from communication climate to organizational effectiveness. A measurement instrument seemed a logical place to start, hence my ‘launching product’, the communication climate scan. And this is what I’ve discovered since then.

How an organization’s communication climate emerges

“Great”, people sometimes say, “but what can we actually do with a climate scan?”. In other words, how can you influence that climate? The answer lies in the communication habits of the organization. The communication climate is nothing but the reflection of the dominant mode of communication of the organization. A reflection that becomes “visible” in the collective emotions of its members. Feelings of trust, belonging and indispensability or rather fear, isolation and redundancy. Fostering a healthy communication climate means you have to get a grip on the communication culture, in other words how people behave when interacting with each other. And it’s not so much what people say that counts but how they say it and with which intention.

How you can change a communication culture

More has been written about change than can one can hope to read in a lifetime. Leaving aside obvious tips such as communicating respectfully and ‘non-violently’, two things strike me as the essence: clarity and credibility. If desired behavior fails to take root, the root cause can usually be traced back to the absence of one or both of these factors.

And here it comes: the level of clarity and credibility that is needed to mobilize people, can only be the result of what I call serious involvement as opposed to the much more ubiquitous symbolical involvement. Role modeling, getting support and recognition, and rewards obviously also play their part in forging change. If all these corporate ‘nudges’ are mutually reinforcing, people will intuitively be inclined to express the desired behavior.

How you can involve employees

Strategy and change communication often pays mere lip service to the involvement of employees. Producing content, formats and channels is just so much easier to oversee than carrying out a real dialogue. Letting go of control, to some extent an inevitable effect of engaging in dialogue with stakeholders, may be at odds with the existing culture. And many line and program managers still seem unshakable in their belief that communication is just a matter of delivering creatively packaged messages, something that is best and conveniently left to specialists.

But no matter how well done, top-down framing and campaigning rarely succeeds in truly getting people on board. Real understanding gets smothered in abstractions that just won’t come to life and the desired change does not feel like something you own. Involving people seriously in change simply means investing time and energy in a structured dialogue.

  1. The first step of such a dialogue focuses on the why. Why is it necessary for example, to change our communication culture? What is the goal?
  2. In the second step you reach agreement on the direction. What specific ‘key behaviors’ are seen as essential to achieving our common goal, and what does this mean in practice?
  3. In the third step the conditions for successful behavior change are identified. What do we need in order to put this into practice? Which barriers in structure and processes may need to be overcome? What skills brushed up? What role do rewards play? And, not least important, how do we measure success?
  4. Finally, as long as work is in progress, the dialogue is aimed at regularly sharing experiences and getting feedback. How is progress? What successes are there to celebrate? Are people running into unforeseen barriers? What is working and what could be better?

During all these steps, it is essential that people experience ‘fair process’ and the mental space to speak up and having influence. Openness and clarity in decision-making are crucial elements to bring these feeling about.

How ‘viral infection’ creates momentum

Every mass movement starts with individuals, formal and informal leaders who express themselves at crucial moments and put words to action. If their courage is be rewarded (and that is not obvious), these early adopters constitute the starting point from which change may start spreading across the organization.

The mechanism by which new behavior spreads is often referred to as social contagion. People change their behavior because they see that others do. It is therefore important to start as early as possible by encouraging exemplary behavior. Besides the usual suspects, including top management and executives, it helps tremendously to get informal leaders on board as well. By mapping the networks of communications — social network analysis — you can find out who they are.

The era of the communicative organization

What is the significance of the new paradigm of the communicative organization for internal communication? A paradigm which revolves around the exchange of knowledge and ideas, and connecting internal and external stakeholders. Where staff experience ever more autonomy and everything else is there to support them. Where “selling” the official line suddenly seems hopelessly out-of-date. And where the monopoly on the truth has ceased to be.

In the communicative organization emphasis shifts from framing and distribution of decisions and policies from above to supporting dialogue and collaboration. Aligning top management and the ‘rest’ of the organization. Finding common ground between the various functional parts of the organization. And last but not least, adequate communication at the team level, between managers and employees and among team members themselves.

In this new paradigm IC professionals essentially focus two purposes: ensuring a well-managed organization-wide strategic dialogue and creating the conditions for a vibrant and constructive communication culture. All this starts with a climate of openness and trust, participation and dialogue and supportiveness.

Internal communication as moderator and facilitator of dialogue

The new IC professional perceives herself as a moderator and facilitator of organization-wide dialogue rather than as a spokesperson and campaign manager. The essence is no longer just to create content and push channels but to build an infrastructure where information can flow freely in all directions: downwards but also upwards and sideways.

Roles as trusted advisor to senior management and dialogue coach are also part of the picture. And then there’s the crucial role of matchmaker, busy in the background with aligning line management and support functions such as HR and Finance, for example to creating a working environment with recognizable norms and values and an open communication-culture.

“Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”

Hard infrastructure, such as internal social media and feedback channels, goes hand in hand with soft infrastructure, in particular a climate of openness and trust in which employees feel that their contribution is meaningful and valued, and that they can count on the support from their managers and colleagues.

Soft infrastructure includes an open communication culture in which values such as sincere listening, receptiveness to warning signals from ‘below’ and to contrarian views, exposing unethical and disrespectful behavior, and taking responsibility for obtaining relevant information are pivotal.

In short, remembering the proverb “teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”, internal communication professionals will communicate less themselves and will increasingly focus on strengthening the communication skills of the organization as a whole. Obviously it is important not to move too fast in front of the troops. Setting the agenda for open communication as the new paradigm is one thing, but only after top and line management have embraced this new identity, will its seeds be able to start bearing fruit.

So, this is what I learned from three years of pioneering with the transition from corporate communication to corporate conversation. I trust that some of them will be useful to you now or later and I would greatly appreciate any feedback, thoughts and suggestions.



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