Businesses face a multitude of vexing situations every day.
Sometimes these are quickly remedied, such as a missed phone call that must be rescheduled, or an unhappy customer who needs to be soothed. At other times, there’s a total breakdown and turmoil erupts, as in the recent GM strike where 50,000 auto workers walked out, venting their anger over a number of decisions by the company.
But, small or large, of minor importance or potentially ruinous, every cause for concern that a business encounters originates from the same place.
“All problems are communication problems,” says Bill Higgs (culturecodechampionspodcast.com), an authority on corporate culture and author of the upcoming book Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business.
“How well you communicate is tied to your organization’s culture, which raises the question: What is your current culture costing you?”
Higgs says it’s common in the business world to be in a situation where someone asks or tells you to do something, you think you understand what they want, but when it’s done, it’s not right.
“When you both review what happened, you realize there was a communication breakdown at the outset,” he says.
Higgs recommends a few ways businesses can improve communications – and in the process avoid everything from minor mishaps to major disputes:
Seek and value input from everyone. A lot of rework could be avoided if leaders in an organization would empower their people to speak up if they see a problem, Higgs says. “Often, people remain silent even when they see something that does not seem right,” he says. “Why is that? I believe these problems happen because a person might notice something seems wrong, but he or she isn’t comfortable challenging someone who they see as more expert on the subject than them or who has more authority.” That’s why it’s important to foster an organization-wide culture where people feel comfortable challenging things, no matter who they are or who they are challenging. That way you increase the odds that things will be done right the first time.
Cross-train people so they better understand what others do. When employees have no idea about their co-workers’ areas of expertise, work slows down, as though everyone on the team is speaking a different language. “You want to get your people to broaden their knowledge and expand the scope of what they normally do in their own jobs,” Higgs says. As people learn more, they become more efficient and, for example, could handle questions from a vendor without bringing in other members of the team, saving everyone’s time. Higgs says cross-training often can take place when people have downtime, but if that’s not possible, it may be necessary to schedule time to make it happen.
Bust silos. Many organizations group people together by function. Marketing people work in the marketing department, finance people in the finance department, and so forth. Departments also are often separated physically. “This can create a number of problems and inefficiencies,” Higgs says. “For example, it can lead to lots of rework because silos are not conducive to communication.” Other problems silos cause include competition rather than collaboration among teams, and finger-pointing and blame-shifting when things go awry. He suggests that, instead of separating people by their functions, group them together in teams that are working on the same projects.
“Don’t let your people shut themselves off in their offices or workspaces, and don’t create such a hierarchy that people can communicate only through pre-approved channels,” Higgs says. “Effective teamwork requires good communication – and lots of it.”
Bill Higgs, an authority on corporate culture, is the author of the upcoming book Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Your Business. He recently launched the Culture Code Champions podcast (culturecodechampionspodcast.com). Higgs is also retired CEO of Mustang Engineering Inc., which he and two partners started in Houston, Texas in 1987 to design and build offshore oil platforms. Over the next 20 years, they grew the company from their initial $15,000 investment and three people to a billion-dollar company with 6,500 people worldwide; since then, it has grown to a $2 billion company with more than 12,000 people. Higgs is a distinguished 1974 graduate (top 5 percent academically) of the United States Military Academy at West Point and runner up for a Rhodes scholarship.