General management

Internal comms includes listening

Photo by UWS Town HallIn most organisations I’ve worked in people say “We need to be better at communicating”—that is, communicating internally to their own staff. And in almost all these situations it’s by people who want to know what’s going on elsewhere in the organisation (maybe at the top level) or those who want to explain that. What’s implicit is that people want to receive an email update, say, on things they know the executive are discussing, or hear that from the boss directly.

This is all fine, but to me it’s less than half the story. The other part—the more significant part—is communication in the opposite direction. This is the part when managers or executives meet and talk directly with those in their teams, and listen to what they have to say.

Partly this is covered by “walking the floor”, when a senior person takes time to go to where their staff are working and talk to them. This is good for understanding what the work is really like, and what issues people are currently dealing with. But I find it’s less useful for finding out how people feel about the bigger, organisational, concerns—walking the floor takes place in a working environment, not a discussion environment.

So for me that other—bigger—part of senior-level communication is a lot about talking to groups. This might consist of town hall-type meetings (lots of people in a room to discuss a matter with someone on the spot) or online, such as a discussion forum or live Q&A on the organisation’s intranet. They might be regular events or part of a set series of events focused on a particular issue.

All this is a vital part of communication—and vital to the senior people as much as anyone. When I am responsible for a team I’ve found it essential to hold group meetings to understand what people really think and feel. It helps me frame my thinking and planning in ways that are meaningful to those who are vital to its success. The impact on me is that I might shift the focus of what I talk about, adjust my language, explain things better, or change some parts of the plan based on what I hear.

The “listening” part of internal communication isn’t separate to the top-down “telling” part. Those town hall meetings and online debates are a conversation. They are an opportunity for the senior people to communicate their message while also listening. It’s a process of continuous feedback and adjustment. The telling and the listening really need to be kept close together.

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