Organizational Communication: Less Woe, More "Wow"

By Joe Jones, Ph.D. May 31, 2016
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My niece recently graduated from college. The speaker at her commencement, a former executive for one of the largest grocery chains in the United States, shared a story about a time in her career when she failed. The story was about a presentation she made to the senior leadership team at her company, after she gathered evidence, planned and practiced for weeks. Despite her confidence that she would “wow” her audience and convince them to implement a new organizational initiative, the team rejected her proposal. Some leaders even reprimanded her for her work.

Why did she fail? Was she was a poor communicator, despite her preparation and self-assurance? The answer to that question is not a simple one.

Competency in Communication is sorely lacking across the leadership talent pool, according to a recent SHRM research study, Using Competencies to Achieve Business Unit Success—The Executive Perspective. It's an interesting, though perhaps not surprising, finding. What's missing? Most competency models include communication, including those designed for leadership roles, technical roles, specific organizations or entire professions. Leaders are often trained in effective communication. Sometimes, entire dedicated communication teams are hired to help. With all these efforts, why do we still have a communication gap?

One who effectively exchanges information with stakeholders is successfully performing the competency of Communication, as defined by the SHRM Competency Model. Moreover, no competency functions on its own; all competencies are interdependent with others. Communication, in particular, is enhanced by effectiveness in Relationship Management. In fact, in an organizational setting, you really can’t have one without the other.

The executive’s story above highlights a common misunderstanding about the purpose of communication, namely, the exchange of information with stakeholders, and the fact that their "stakes" often conflict. Proficient communicators take into account the differing goals of their audience. Our speaker’s failure wasn’t in the style and content of her presentation, but in her failure to connect beforehand with the leadership team, foreshadowing her request, getting their input and buy-in.

Effective communicators seek to understand the audience they will try to exchange information with—their substantive needs, as well as how they prefer to receive information about those needs. To do that well among diverse stakeholders, HR practitioners must build and maintain effective relationships, with leaders and nonleaders, inside and outside the organization. Even where the ability to gain buy-in and input beforehand is limited, establishing and maintaining strong relationships with stakeholders—in advance of, as well as following, your communications—helps increase the likelihood of a successful exchange of information.

We often overlook the extensive relationship-building work that effective communicators engage in. While the speaking styles of famous orators are obviously very good, what often gives them an extra edge is their ability to connect with others, before and after delivering critical communications.

I believe that communication training within organizations focuses too much on content, medium and style, and ignores the critical interplay between Communication and Relationship Management (and also with other HR competencies, notably Critical Evaluation and Global & Cultural Effectiveness). Furthermore, any failure to gain buy-in from stakeholders should not be blamed solely on the nature of what is being communicated. Take a step back and look at how—or even whether—relationships with those stakeholders were built and maintained.

Start thinking of communication as part of a broader network of competencies, and you'll enhance your communication success in ways you never would have imagined. Just remember—it's a never-ending activity. There's no rest for the successful, if weary, communicator.

Joe Jones, Ph.D., is director of HR competencies at SHRM.

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