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Basics in Internal Organizational Communications

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Adapted from the Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision in Business and Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision for Nonprofit Staff.

Most experts on organizations, management and leadership, assert that effective communications is the foundation for effectiveness in any type of organization. They assert there can't be too much communication. Some leaders misinterpret communications to be the same as paperwork or bureaucracy and so they're averse to a high degree of communications. As leaders and managers mature, they realize the need to effective convey and receive information, and efforts at communications (internal and external) increase substantially.

Sections of This Topic Include

Purpose of this Document
Common Causes of Problems in Internal Communications
Key Principles to Effective Internal Communications
Basic Structures/Policies to Support Effective Internal Communications
Supervisor and Employee Communications
Develop a Basic Communications Plan

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Purpose of this Document

Texts on organizational communications tend to first examine basics concepts such as "communications", "sender", "receivers", "encoders", etc. They go on to examine aspects of communications, e.g., downward, upward, body, verbal, written, formal and informal, interpersonal and group, etc. Some texts include various means to analyze effectiveness of communications. Some writers include public relations and media relations in organizational communications.

This document is geared to provide practical suggestions for nonprofit leaders and managers to ensure sufficient communications within their nonprofits and with external stakeholders. Public relations and media relations are outside the range of this document. Communications is one of those topics that tend to leave people feeling somewhat confused or sometimes bored. People get confused because communications is such a broad topic and it seems to somehow relate to everything. People who get bored assume that they've been communicating since childhood so why bring up the topic of communications. Consequently, it may be most useful in this document to start with common pitfalls in communications and then provide a range of items that can be used to enhance communications.

Note that many organizations take a deliberate, formal approach to ensuring sound communications, (both internal and external) by developing a communications plan.

Common Causes of Problems in Internal Communications

1. If I know it, then everyone must know it.
Perhaps the most common communications problem is managements' (leaders' and managers') assumption that because they are aware of some piece of information, than everyone else is, too. Usually staff aren't aware unless management makes a deliberate attempt to carefully convey information.
2. We hate bureaucracy -- we're "lean and mean."
When organizations are just getting started, their leaders can often prize themselves on not being burdened with what seems as bureaucratic overhead, that is, as extensive written policies and procedures. Writing something down can be seen as a sign of bureaucracy and to be avoided. As the organization grows, it needs more communications and feedback to remain healthy, but this communication isn't valued. As a result, increasing confusion ensues -- unless management matures and realizes the need for increased, reliable communications.
3. I told everyone, or some people, or ...?
Another frequent problem is managements' not really valuing communications or assuming that it just happens. So they're not aware of what they told to whom -- even when they intended for everyone to know the information.
4. Did you hear what I meant for you to hear?
With today's increasingly diverse workforce, it's easy to believe you've conveyed information to someone, but you aren't aware that they interpreted you differently than you intended. Unfortunately, you won't be aware of this problem until a major problem or issue arises out of the confusion.
5. Our problems are too big to have to listen to each other!
Particularly when personnel are tired or under stress, it's easy to do what's urgent rather than what's important. So people misunderstand others' points or understand their intentions. This problem usually gets discovered too late, too.
6. So what's to talk about?
Lastly, communications problems can arise when inexperienced management interprets its job to be solving problems and if they're aren't any problems/crises, then there's nothing that needs to be communicated.
7. There's data and there's information.
As organizations grow, their management tends to focus on matters of efficiency. They often generate systems that produce substantial amount of data -- raw information that doesn't seem to really be important.
7. If I need your opinion, I'll tell it to you.
Lastly, communications problems can arise when management simply sees no value whatsoever in communicating with subordinates, believing subordinates should shut up and do their jobs.

Key Principles to Effective Internal Organizational Communications

1. Unless management comprehends and fully supports the premise that organizations must have high degrees of communications (like people needing lots of water), the organization will remain stilted. Too often, management learns the need for communication by having to respond to the lack of it.
2. Effective internal communications start with effective skills in communications, including basic skills in listening, speaking, questioning and sharing feedback. See Communications Skills.
These can developed with some concerted review and practice. Perhaps the most important outcome from these skills is conveying that you value hearing from others and their hearing from you.
3. Sound meeting management skills go a long way toward ensuring effective communications, too. See Guidelines for Effective Meeting Management.
4. A key ingredient to developing effective communications in any organization is each person taking responsibility to assert when they don't understand a communication or to suggest when and how someone could communicate more effectively.

Basic Structures/Policies to Support Effective Internal Communications

This communication can be looked at as communications downward and upward.

Downward Communications:

1. Ensure every employee receives a copy of the strategic plan, which includes the organization's mission, vision, values statement, strategic goals and strategies about how those goals will be reached.
2. Ensure every employee receives an employee handbook that contains all up-to-date personnel policies.
3. Develop a basic set of procedures for how routine tasks are conducted and include them in standard operating manual.
4. Ensure every employee has a copy of their job description and the organization chart.
5. Regularly hold management meetings (at least every two weeks), even if there's nothing pressing to report. If you hold meetings only when you believe there's something to report, then communications will occur only when you have something to say -- communications will be one way and the organization will suffer. Have meetings anyway, if only to establish and affirm the communication that things are of a status that there's not immediate problems.
6. Hold full staff meetings every month to report how the organization is doing, major accomplishments, concerns, announcements about staff, etc.
7. Leaders and managers should have face-to-face contact with employees at least once a week. Even if the organization is over 20 employees (large for a nonprofit), management should stroll by once in a while.
8. Regularly hold meetings to celebrate major accomplishments. This helps employees perceive what's important, gives them a sense of direction and fulfillment, and let's them know that leadership is on top of things.
9. Ensure all employees receive yearly performance reviews, including their goals for the year, updated job descriptions, accomplishments, needs for improvement, and plans to help the employee accomplish the improvements. If the nonprofit has sufficient resources (a realistic concern), develop a career plan with the employee, too.

Upward Communications:

1. Ensure all employees give regular status reports to their supervisors. Include a section for what they did last week, will do next week and any actions/issues to address.
2. Ensure all supervisors meet one-on-one at least once a month with their employees to discuss how its' going, hear any current concerns from the employee, etc. Even if the meeting is chit-chat, it cultivates an important relationship between supervisor and employee.
3. Use management and staff meetings to solicit feedback. Ask how it's going. Do a round table approach to hear from each person.
4. Act on feedback from others. Write it down. Get back to it -- if only to say you can't do anything about the reported problem or suggestion, etc.
5. Respect the "grapevine." It's probably one of the most prevalent and reliable forms of communications. Major "movements" in the organization usually first appear when employees feel it safe to venture their feelings or opinions to peers.

Supervisor and Employee Communications

Supervision is often considered to include designing the job, hiring someone to fill the job, training them, delegating to them, guiding them via performance reviews, helping them develop their career, noting performance issues, and firing them, if needed. Obviously small nonprofits may not be able to afford full attention to all of these activities.

However, there are several basic and regular activities which provide a solid foundation for effective supervision. These basics ensure that everyone is working together -- as important, that staff feel they are working together -- towards a common cause.

Ironically, these basics are usually the first activities that stop when an organization is in a crisis. Consequently, an organization development specialist, when "diagnosing" an organization, often first looks to see if these basics are underway. The following activities should be conducted by the new employer's supervisor.
1. Have all employees provide weekly written status reports to their supervisors.
Include what tasks were done last week, what tasks are planned next week, any pending issues and date the report. These reports may seem a tedious task, but they're precious in ensuring that employee and their supervisor have mutual understanding of what is going on, and the reports come in very handy for planning purposes. They also make otherwise harried staff and managers stand back and reflect on what they're doing.
2. Hold monthly meetings with all staff together
- Review the overall condition of the organization and review recent successes. Consider conducting "in service" training where employees take turns describing their roles to the rest of the staff. For clarity, focus and morale, be sure to use agendas and ensure follow-up minutes. Consider bringing in a client to tell their story of how the organization helped them. These meetings go a long way toward building a feeling of teamwork among staff. See Guidelines for Meeting Management.
3. Hold weekly or biweekly meetings with all staff together if the organization is small (e.g., under 10 people); otherwise, with all managers together.
Have these meetings even if there is not a specific problem to solve -- just make them shorter. (Holding meetings only when there are problems to solve cultivates a crisis-oriented environment where managers believe their only job is to solve problems.) Use these meetings for each person to briefly give an overview of what they are doing that week. Facilitate the meetings to support exchange of ideas and questions. Again, for clarity, focus and morale, be sure to use agendas, take minutes and ensure follow-up minutes. Have each person bring their calendar to ensure scheduling of future meetings accommodates each person's calendar.
4. Have supervisors meet with their direct reports in one-on-one meetings every month -
This ultimately produces more efficient time management and supervision. Review overall status of work activities, hear how it's going with both the supervisor and the employee, exchange feedback and questions about current programs and services, and discuss career planning, etc. Consider these meetings as interim meetings between the more formal, yearly performance review meetings.

Develop a Basic Communications Plan

Whether planning your internal or external communications efforts, it helps a great deal to develop a communications plan, either informally or formally. For example, consider:
1. What key messages do you want to convey?
2. To what key stakeholders do you want to convey the key messages (e.g., consider clients, funders, community leaders, service providers, etc.)?
3. What's the best approach to reach each key stakeholder, including who/how should the message be conveyed?
4. How will you know if you're reaching these stakeholders or not?

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