Reasons internal communications clog up

Structural issues and technological flaws are often easier to fix than the human element. Is one of your upper-tier managers the proverbial kink in the hose?

What’s stopping the flow of communication in your organization?

In late 2014, DecisionWise asked a salient question across different levels of organizations. Simply put, the question was this: “Is the amount of communication you receive about important information in the organization appropriate?”

The results they received aren’t necessarily bad, but they do shed light on a common challenge that communicators face.

Here are the findings:

  • More than 90 percent of executives and senior managers indicate the level of communication they receive about important information in the organization is appropriate.
  • More than three-quarters (78 percent) of mid-level managers responded favorably.
  • More than two-thirds (68 percent) of line-level employees responded favorably.

They call this the “irrigation effect.”

The purpose of irrigation is to take water from a source and spread it where it’s needed, whether that be to crops, a field, a yard, whatever. The farther from the source, the more energy is required to get the water there.

This is no different in communications, and the data show that as you get farther from the source (senior leadership), the information doesn’t flow at the same rate. More energy has to be applied; more “water” must be pushed.

(Yes, I recognize that communication within organizations must run both ways. What I’m focusing on here is just one of those ways. Leadership communication should always have a listening component, but it must also have a delivery aspect.)

Download this free white paper, “Auditing your Internal Communications,” for a step-by-step guide to assess which communications channels work best for your organization.

I first learned about the irrigation analogy in this Entrepreneur article. The writer identified three main barriers to properly “irrigating” your communication:

  1. Technological barriers
    “This could include email, social media, company intranets and other systems designed for communicating information. Technology is powerful in facilitating the flow of information. However, we cannot presuppose that “if we build it, they will come.” Don’t assume that because the information exists in bits and bytes (email, social media, company intranets, policy manuals, etc.), that employees will rush to access it. Just because the water is there, doesn’t mean the employees know how (or want) to access it. More often than not, we need to make a conscious effort to deliver the water to them.”
  2. Structural barriers
    “The further employees are from the source, the less likely they are to receive the information. Structural barriers include such factors as complicated organization structures and levels, geographical locations and cultures, varying job types and differing work schedules (think day shift versus night shift). While these may be necessary, our communication needs to take these into consideration.”
  3. Human barriers
    “Many leaders are surprised to learn that they are the barriers. We assume that we’ve communicated effectively when, in reality, the information we share is sparse, insufficient, infrequent, or simply inaccurate. Keep in mind that between the source of the water and the end of the row, the water may have to pass through multiple channels before it arrives. If managers don’t make a conscious effort to facilitate the flow of information, rather than obstruct it, vital communication is likely to dissipate before reaching those parts of the field where it is needed most.”

There are many lessons to be learned from the first two (technology and structure), but it’s the human barriers that are the trickiest for communicators to overcome. People are imperfect, and that’s what makes us great.

When it comes to communication, though, often we are our own filter. We process information and determine what’s important to us. If we have to share that information, some details will be lost and some will have shifted.

Even the greatest leaders have communication weaknesses. It’s up to internal communicators to be true business partners and help to identify those who are “obstructing the flow” and coach them on how to keep the information spreading.

All it takes is one leader at a high level to stanch communication along the path.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Chuck Gose on Twitter @chuckgose.

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