As an organisation grows, the first thing to suffer is communication. You imagine. No, you know that everyone is on the same page until you are told that they aren’t. Priorities do not synchronise and information does not get transmitted as much as you would have hoped. Trust erodes away.
What went wrong? How do you get back that effortless alignment? How do you regain trust?
The most important outcome of communication is the trust that gets built among the people involved. Leaders want to create a culture where people command trust and because of it, are given more responsibilities to shoulder. This works well for the team and for the individuals. It results in faster, predictable execution by the team and learning and personal growth for the individuals. It is a clear win-win. So, how do we get there?
Lets start with the basics of trust. How is trust accrued or managed over time?
This theory claims that trust is a currency or a store of wealth you can earn and spend. According to it, there are various transactions that let you deposit trust into a “trust bank account” between yourself and somebody else. The more deposit actions you do, the more trust balance you have. You can also do withdrawl actions which deplete this balance.
Deposits would be activities which enhance the trust between two parties. Say covering for somebody when they absolutely need to be somewhere else or are stuck.
Withdrawals are activities which tend to decrease the trust between two parties. Say missing a deadline, forgetting about something that is very important to them.
There are neutral transactions as well. These are activities that would neither enhance nor decrease the trust between two people.
Effective and proactive communication is a deposit into your trust bank. Conversely, absence of communication is a heavy withdrawal from your account. Not communicating may feel like a neutral transaction, but it is not. It takes a heavy toll from your account without you realizing.
Every time you communicate effectively, you are making a deposit into your trust account. These deposits also have a fairly large interest rate. So as you acquire trust, the perceived trust increases non-linearly.
A high trust balance gives you more room to do withdrawals. Examples of trust withdrawals which you may want to do:
While you can do any of these right away, because these are withdrawals, you could go into a negative trust balance.
A negative trust balance is a tricky situation. You have to earn it all back and it is an uphill battle. Because people distrust you already, your attempts to regain that trust may not be as effective as they would have been on a zero balance account.
First, lets try to understand why we communicate in an organisation at all. Why do we communicate?
Purpose of day-to-day organisational communication:
eg. what is the state of the project, what tech choice was taken, this is what I finished today etc.
To call someone’s attention
eg. a key dependency was missed out, something more urgent came up, timelines are affected
eg. things are on time, we are still launching on Wednesday,
Effective communication is that which does all of the above.
Traditionally, communication has been a leadership responsibility. Leaders have most idea about what is going on and can make higher level assessments. In any sub-group, the leader has to take the additional (perhaps the most important) charge of communicating.
First step would be to identify a channel for continued communication. This could be email, a slack channel, daily in-person reports. At the very least, you and your leader should be present.
The second step would be to identify what needs to be communicated.
Informational messages are those that do not require anybody to take an action. They are not updates either.
Examples would be (“We are picking this up first”, “Links to documentation”, “This is the link to the API: https://….” etc.
These messages are sent as and when the need arises. They need not be tagging or mentioning anybody.
Attention messages are those that require somebody else to either note or act upon something. These could be calling out dependencies, or could be identifying problems or missing requirements. Examples: “We can’t pick this up now because A has come up. We will pick this up immediately after.”, “For us to start work, we need X and Y to already have been finished or agreed upon.”, “The deadline will need to be pushed by X days because Y”.
These messages are also sent as and when the need arises. They SHOULD tag the people who you are calling attention to.
Updates are to keep everybody abreast of the progress being made. Most updates are repetitive. The information may already be crystal-clear in your mind and in most people’s mind, but you still need to convey it. Repeated communication is good. It keeps people reassured.
To me, the most important message is the update. This should be done frequently and should inform and reassure all in the team and immediate stakeholders.
To increase trust across your team, you have to make this kind of protocol based communication an explicit responsibility. In most places, communication of this kind is an implicit responsibility. When that happens, new members do not often absorb the communication expectations fully.
Add a communication protocol to your handbook. Teach new members of your team what the responsibility is. Create a deck. Call out and reinforce instances of good communication.
It may be uncomfortable to start this. Your team may resent you for installing structure where they feel it is not necessary. But that’s the thing about being a leader. If everyone is happy all the time, you are not doing your job.