HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Communications

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (May, 2005), the HR Group newsletter.

“People without information cannot act responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly.” (Blanchard et al, 1996, p.34)

Ask people to tell you what is not working well in their organizations and they will invariably say that communications could be improved. We frequently hear from so many that the problem that they want us to address as consultants is primarily one of poor communication. They want a workshop to improve communications between management and the plant floor or to help someone become a better manager or to create better morale.

The whole area of “communication” is so broad and so general that we initially have to try and pinpoint far more precisely what the actual problems are. In doing so, we usually find that these problems of communication are actually reflective of other managerial and organizational problems. Perhaps the management style is not in the least participative and information, therefore, is purely on a need to know basis. Perhaps there is poor lateral communication between departments because of the silo mentality, the hierarchical organizational structure, and the lack of cooperative teamwork. Perhaps there is poor communication because of performance issues that are not being addressed.

Appropriate feedback and information in general is critical to a productive workplace. This has been a key element in theories of organizational effectiveness for over 60 years. Abraham Maslow first described his theory of a hierarchy of needs in his book, Motivation and Personality, which was published in 1954. Frederick Herzberg wrote Work and the Nature of Man in 1966. Douglas McGregor presented his ideas of Theory X and Theory Y in The Human Side of Enterprise, which was published in 1960. Dr. Alfred J. Marrow, known as the father of “participative management”, did his research in 1947.

Today we have Edward Lawler III, among others, who promotes the concept of “high involvement organizations”. Lawler says that the ultimate advantage for organizational effectiveness is to create a high involvement organization; one that fully involves all employees at all levels. In order to accomplish this, Lawler says that information and knowledge must be spread throughout the organization and not just hoarded and jealously guarded at the top levels. This is especially critical in today’s knowledge driven economy. Herzberg spoke about providing employees with timely performance information. Lawler expands this to include not only information regarding personal performance, but also information regarding corporate performance in general.

It is to be expected that the organization will have poor communication if the management style is a traditional authoritarian or paternal one. Information and knowledge, in every type of organizational environment, must be openly shared today in order to gain all possible economic advantage. The best assurance of quality is a knowledgeable employee. The best assurance of continuous improvement is an involved and knowledgeable employee. The best assurance of safety and prudent risk management is a knowledgeable employee. Appropriate feedback and information in general is critical to a productive workplace. This is why so many organizations have adopted or are in the process of adopting a participative management approach as opposed to the traditional top-down and need-to-know approach. It is worth noting that lean manufacturing processes demand such an approach.

The hierarchical structure also has a tremendous effect on the quality of communications. Studies have shown that approximately 10% of the accuracy of information is lost for each hierarchical level that it must pass through. Traditional hierarchical organizational structures also lead to a silo mentality and poor communication between departments and a lack of cooperation. This is one of the main reasons for adopting as flat an organizational structure as possible.

In many other cases, as mentioned above, the cause of poor communications is one of poor performance on the part of an employee, typically a manager. Sometimes managers are reluctant to share information or to train new employees or possible successors as they feel that they have better job security in this way. Sometimes the individual manager is reluctant to adopt a more participative management style and “knows it all”. These are issues of poor performance that have not been dealt with. No “communications” workshop is going to alleviate the problem.

The need to openly communicate and share information is evidenced in the growing practice of “Open-Book Management”. In his book by the same name, John Case (1995, pp.37 & 38) states that, “Every employee in an open-book company sees – and learns to understand – the company’s financials, along with all other numbers that are critical to tracking the business’s performance. … Employees assume that, whatever else they do, part of their job is to move those numbers in the right direction. … Employees have a direct stake in the company’s success.

“If the business is profitable, they get a cut of the action. If it’s not, they don’t. In effect, open book management teaches people to quit thinking of themselves as hired hands (with all that implies) and to start realizing that they are business people (with all that implies). Their financial security depends on their joint success in the marketplace.”

References

Blanchard, K., Carlos, J.P., & Randolph, A., 1996. Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Case, J., 1995.  Open-Book Management.  New York: Harper Business.