“Dialogue does not need to be constrained to a single issue or strategy; it can feed into the bigger picture,” – so argues David Cowan in his new book.
What I liked of ‘Strategic Internal Communication‘, is the emphasis Cowan puts on connections, interactions and relationships to build new knowledge and understanding inside the organisation. The process is not easy and “we have to be prepared for difficult conversations.” However, when constructive dialogue is created, the result is a more engaged and productive workforce.
A few hallmarks of our age
We live in an extremely crowded communication age with the volume of digital information increasing 10-fold every five-year period. We are all interconnected and interdependent and our workplaces are increasingly diverse. “The rate of change and flexibility of attitudes and trends means there is greater transcience in our society with people moving places and positions more frequently.”
Everything is considerably faster while our attention spans have become considerably shorter. Getting our messages out is cheaper, while hiding information is more difficult, which means “we have to communicate transparently.” At the same time, there is also an increasing demand on privacy and a sense of discomfort that transparency has become intrusion.
Yet, most organisations are still using 20th-century approaches to communicate to a 21st-century workforce.
While in the past internal communications was primarily focused on the ‘what we do’, today it should emphasise the ‘why of what we are doing’. Cowan’s book is an invitation to engage, to extend our reach to connect one another while creating positive participation and change.
We are all networked as people
The position the author takes in relation to the notion of being interconnected challenges some sacred cows of internal communication. He points out the changing role of the function inside the enterprise. “Who in your organisation can you get a message to so that you reach a greater number? They need not be ‘communications people’ or important managers; they are simply your natural communicators.”
In our age we are discovering that we are all networked as people. “Everyone is a communicator and networker, and communications has to be both a leadership function and a job for everyone.”
Communication is not technocratic as it was in last century but rather people-centric. This indicates that technology must be at the service of people and not the other way around.
Introducing the ‘dialogue box’
We commonly think of the new world of communication as open and free, in which vast distances shrink.
But Cowan reminds us that we have also created significant new barriers by overwhelming people with information through a wide range of tools. “It is significantly difficult for people to see the wood for the trees.”
To address this major problem, Cowan suggests dialogue is key. “To get attention in this crowded, fast and transient space does not mean continuously embracing new technologies and hurling more information faster at colleagues.”
Cowan instead invites organisations to figure out targeted and experienced-based ways of communicating by focusing on “dialogue rather than just creating more chatter.”
In doing so, the author introduces what he calls the ‘dialogue box’, a simple but effective framework to overcome the communications challenges described here. It consists of five zones, namely ‘intelligence’, ’emotion’, interpretation’, ‘narrative’ and ‘dialogue’.
“Things will often turn out the way we expect, but often, and in the biggest cases, they will not.”
The first component of the dialogue box is intelligence, described by Cowan as “our capacity to be rational and pursue a path of reasoning to reach a decision or conclusion about something.”
While we all have intelligence and “as human beings we have this amazing thing called the brain,” there are many barriers to reaching intelligent conclusions including unknows, biases, assumptions and attention spans. “Our minds are limited”.
The author suggests exercising the brain in the workplace to improve employee engagement. “If we can get employees to give their attention to certain things, then we will be supporting them to corral their ideas, their knowledge and their emotions to match with the needs of the organisation.” This implies focussing our attention on others and connect with them by using role models and stories.
However, we need to look at the role of emotion to fully grasp this process. In fact, the problem with purely intelligent communications is that it behaves as if the organisation is normatively logical and calm, and receptive to the message. This is not always the case. Often, employees are emotionally disengaged and distant from the hopes and enthusiasm of their leadership. “This is the complex emotional organisation you are in dialogue with, which is multi-faceted and ever-changing.”
“It is important to understand emotion if we are to understand communication.”
Emotional management is a dimension of internal communications that is often overlooked. But managing people is about managing emotions as well.
The point made by Cowan is that emotions can communicate a lot of information. Organisations should be aware of that and keep an open mind.
For example, taking emotion seriously in the workplace can allow managers to resolve dissonance. Dissonance occurs when employees are torn between their own goals and those of the organisation, or between their needs and the needs of those around them. This can lead to a feeling of uncertainty about their role, skills and suitability, which may be reflected by a range of moods – from anxiety to joy, participation and withdrawal. “If you observe these signs you can take a shortcut to helping them solve their problem.”
In times of emotional disturbance, managers are invited to communicate feelings rather than reasons, by showing understanding and empathy. “To be wise in a situation means to listen. See things from the other person’s point of view.”
The issue for the emotional manager is whether they have the courage to present in person the difficult decision. “Managing emotionally means allowing others to share their, and your, personal space without fear of exposure or ridicule. There is a journey of trust to be taken if this personal space is to be opened and remain opened, rather than being a site of power.”
“How can you make communication more meaningful in your organisation? In areas such as values, ethics and sustainability, do you think the right words are being used critically?”
Cowan’s dialogue box proposes that interpretation is pivotal, since it derives from the intelligence and emotions of individuals synthesised into understanding. People interpret events both subjectively – from their own viewpoint and prejudices – and objectively, by trying to understand the truth of the matter and giving a fair viewpoint to all the agents involved in the situation.
In the effort of making sense of things, we often fill in the gaps in our data and knowledge. This can be either effective or disastrous. For example, through assumptions we try to define what seems to be a natural trajectory, thereby creating a self-fulfilling trajectory of our thoughts. As a result the author urges us to focus attention on meaning:
“Meaning plays a role in this, because words and terms can be used to fill in the gaps. Such meanings can work across the organisation to describe an individual or unit. Hence, a successful interpretation or popularly accepted meaning becomes currency in the marketplace of organisational morale, as negative or positive interpretations can lead to an undermining or uplifting of spirits in the organisation.”
We may want to keep things rational or managerial in our understanding of the organisation, but in internal communications we are also dealing with what is meaningful in individuals’ lives.
Once again, the author likes to remind us of the importance of connections. “Language does more than simply describe or communicate: it affects the way we look at the world and the way we respond to other people.” This means our boundaries are not so clear either. While the organisation defines boundaries for work, the relationships and connections people make often will break these boundaries. For example, beyond being ‘positions’, ‘bosses’ or ‘functions’ people can connect through something in common outside the workplace, including watching last night’s TV programme, family moments, weather and so on. “The issues of meaning and interpretation are the most complex elements in the life of the organisation. Meaning is subject to emotional, psychological, political, spiritual and philosophical norms, and what we define meaningful is not the same as our work colleague.”
“Narrative informs our relationships, and causes us to change our dealings with other people, allowing us to know another person or to understand our relationship to them.”
Within an organisation people are constantly communicating. A variety of stories are shared, which can reinforce good things happening in the business, or lower the morale of staff.
It may be helpful understanding narrative on two levels. On one level there are the stories that individuals tell, which “can illuminate, contradict, challenge, inform, or so on.” They may be stories about people, customers or the organisation.
The second level, is “the major narrative that emerges out of the stories circulating in the organisation.” The dominant stories inside the company thus create “a new and guiding grand narrative,” the strongness of which will depend on how internal communications have managed to tell the corporate story.
I particularly appreciate the attention Cowan gives to circulating stories. He returns to his established point that there are many communicators inside our organisations. “The fact is we are all story-tellers, some of us better than others. The important task is to find out who these ‘natural communicators’ in your organisation are, and how to work with them to help promote engagement.”
The author offers tips worth repeating such as respecting the audience and being authentic. “Have a rhythm that reflects the ups and downs, threats and achievements. If we structure our narrative so that we only allow for the positive or motivational stories then we end up devaluing the narrative elements. Contrasts draw us in, but they also reflect real life.”
He also emphasises using stories to engage with people, not talking at them. “Get people thinking not just about the story but how it applies to them and how it affects their perception of themselves and others. Narrative that talks at people creates only silence.”
What internal communications should strive for is open dialogue: “the give and take of engagement.”
Ensuring effective dialogues
“Dialogue will help pave the way to innovate the future of organisational structure, and the more innovative you are in your dialogue the more innovative your solutions will be.”
Cowan argues that the four elements above help to create space for the right kind of dialogue to have in any given situation. He puts this at the heart of employee engagement, asserting that “dialogue is not simply talk” but “an opportunity for encounter.” In dialogue, people are in a position of influencing and helping to shape business outcomes. They strengthen existing relationships, or forge new ones. They can correct misperceptions or previously taken positions. “Not only are we describing the world, but we are also changing the world.”
Within the process, “a little humility” may not harm. “We may be confident in our dialogue position and the intelligence we possess, but there can be a fine line between obstinacy and certainty.” When things change people can change their minds too. Hence, the importance to be open to the impact of changing facts and to continually seek understanding.
Are you willing to be in dialogue?
In ‘Strategic Internal Communication‘, the question of dialogue becomes a fundamental one to ask ourselves: are we willing to connect to others and to meet in a process of mutual discovery?
Cowan has no doubt that in our diverse and globalised world this is becoming increasingly more important. People have valuable contributions to make to the ideas and plans on an organisation. Connecting and listening to them is both respectful and a creative way forward.
His framework may serve as an helpful tool for internal communicators who want to work more productively in this direction. As a framework it of course tends to the general and may miss the nuaances of working in a real complex organisation. However, the book also provides a practical workshop-type set of exercises to help make use of the dialogue box, either in an individual setting or as a group session. So there is plenty of scope for the reader to use Strategic Internal Communication as the basis for building employee engagement and – indeed – performance.