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  • 1. Analyzing Workplace Communication Dr. Trent Keough I: Communication as a Medium for Authority In a non-reciprocal communication paradigm data is pipelined through anorganization. Data gets picked-up as needed. Here information is considered to bea commodity much like gasoline or potato chips. People partake of communicationwhen they need it, want it, or got to have it! Service driven intranets, newspapers,inaugural speeches, leadership blogs, and company newsletters can function in thisway. Information is driven one way with little expectation that real-timeengagement will occur. Communication as strategy for data delivery can work to incite pleasure,anger, or have neutral emotional impact. It can celebrate a good news story orfacilitate the access of services directly to an employee/customer. Introducingnegative information via a data pipeline fails to draw on the layering of positionalauthority that buffers and refines information to specified audiences. A classicexample of this failure is the utilization of a press release as the singularcommunication on an abrupt change or response to crisis. Engagementanticipation/expectation is a marker of truly effective communication. Effectivecommunication expects its cycle silences to be filled with polyphony offeringquestions or commentary. Engagement anticipation can be created. Creating opportunities fordissonance can be effected by acting on the intention to literally watch andobserve. The premise of needing a communication observation is not made on theexpectation for inciting anger, but a recognition of the unintended consequences ofevery expressed intention. This need to observe can be addressed by the creation ofcommunication ambassadors who literally observe communications and reflect andreframe messages at specified junctures. The individuals acting as communicationambassadors demonstrate keen listening skills and knowledge of what kind orpurposing the communication is given. For example, individuals inexperiencedwith a „first dialogue and then decide‟ decision-making style will take the 1
  • 2. preliminary discussion for the actual decision unless periodically checked. It iswise to assume that some will hear what they desire, not what was said, written, orpresented. Recognition of „voicing‟ opportunities can provide the experience necessaryfor developing group syncretism. The anticipated singularity is not so dissimilar tothe codifying „group-think‟ emerging from „storming, forming and norming‟activities. There is a level of disengagement required to undertake this activity. Theintended outcome needs to be foregrounded and become a self-conscious part ofthe process. It‟s only a matter of pausing to say, „We are undertaking this activityto achieve x outcome.‟ When disengagement activities are not built intocommunication strategies escalation into emotive exchange/response often occurs.Successful negotiators and mediators are clearly utilizing disengagement strategieswhen they identify opportunities for moving dissenting parties to common ground. Most organizations have some measure of structural disengagement builtinto them. Disengagement can also come in the form of „scope of practice‟delineations. If reduced to its most rudimentary of forms disengagement is eitherself-willed or superimposed by structural hierarchy. Lets consider a publicallyfunded, unionized college as an example. Management, faculty, excluded and staffrights are segregated by differences in their employment contracts, positionprofiles, collective agreements, and by legislation. So, too, are theircommunication profiles. The broadest category of separation is typically found inthe distinction between employer/ employee rights and privileges. The rights tointerpret, challenge and apply collective agreements are known by all signatories.Some access to information can be subjected to negotiations after contractualbindings are in place. What does a unionized environment impart about thelanguage of a profession or workplace? Within any organization communications culture is influenced by structure.As a language is both the vehicle and means to definition of culturalconsciousness, communications culture is both the medium and the effect oforganizational structure. The organization‟s reporting and decision-makingstructure defines the social infrastructure housing communications. The charter forinternal communications begins with the organizational chart. If that structure is 2
  • 3. hierarchical, then there is almost certainty of control-based decision-making anddelegation of limited authorities. Through delegation each member of the organization, according toindividual rights and privileges defined by occupational scope of practice, makesdecisions in the workplace. In turn each has responsibility for communicatingabout these decisions. These decisions are also influenced by policies, procedures,guidelines. Who makes which decisions is normally clarified further in reportinglines of accountability. Hierarchical organization structures have clearly articulatedcommunication zones and parameters for disclosure. These are also physicaldisengagement zones based on segregation of duties. Positions are intended to accurately and efficiently move information withinorganizations. It is anticipated that individuals in these positions are capable ofmediating for emotional and cultural contexts. This assumption is too oftenerroneous as most people are unaware of language as semantic and culturalpolitics. Again and again we see evidence of the wrong people delivering crucialmessages to the wrong audiences. The person occupying a position may not havethe communication skills required to deliver the message or the mental aptitude orstomach, depending on content. The person who delivers the message is asimportant as knowledge of the content and the audience. Don‟t send a salesman toinform a group of a sudden death. High energy extroverts can be perceived asbeing inauthentic or unsympathetic if unconnected to the tragedy. The relationship between the medium (form: video, print, audio) and themessage (the content‟s what) is complicated further by authorial intention (e.g. saythe managements expressed or desired results), reader responsiveness (e.g. theemployees‟ identification of implicit messages in anticipated results) and thepredictive dialogism of collective reception (e.g. cultures of suspicion, trust,negotiation, mediation, protest, acceptance). As little as 10% of „verbal‟communication is unaffected by physical context, i.e. body language, timing ofmessage, place of delivery, immediate audience response, etc., and predicativereception. It is not surprising that simultaneous and scripted communications donot elicit identical responses or identical levels of factual awareness within oracross groupings. The element of dissonance in predictive reception iscompounded when organizations are stratified by geography and departments. 3
  • 4. Allegations of inadequate communication can reflect deficits and biases inreception not inadequate volume or accuracy of communication. When a messageisn‟t liked, or is unwanted, the lack of communication banner often gets waived. Insuch instances repeating the message with more volume does not eliminateanother‟s imagined hearing deficit or bridge semantic/ linguistic differences. Therelationship between volume, frequency and linguistic effectiveness invariablybrings us back to medium/message and intention/reception analysis. In everyday circumstance this complexity is reduced to issues of mistrustbased on dissatisfaction with previous decisions and actions. Most people are ill-equipped to engage in examination of communication as cognitive process, socialscience, and semiotic theory. Least of all very few would welcome the suggestionthat allegation of communication failure is often nothing more than expression ofunhappiness with clearly articulated decisions changing work. Ownership ofcommunication invariably requires acknowledgement of personal or group deficitin some areas of the loop. Unhappy people consistently dont like much of what they see or hear withinor outside of work. We generally accept that there are skeptics, cynics, optimists,and those in search of serendipity or „Serenity NOW!‟ Yet, there is reluctance touse these labels for individuals and workplace groups. Why? We know that somepeople seek the attention lacking in their personal lives at work. They bring thatneed and the many frustrations of their lives to the desks and lunchrooms of co-workers. The lonely accuser doesnt live exclusively at bus stations. How manyjaded people work with you? Why do people lose trust? What causes it?Answering these questions is likely as difficult as explaining the phenomenon ofdivorce. Loss of trust originates with acts disassociation, decreasing emotionalcommitment and connection, suspicion of secrets, acts of bad faith, and increasingsilences between positive communications, etc. When trust is broken it is easy to become cynical or jaded. How can anemployee trust when the employer openly withholds or limits or sanitizes or spinsinformation? Information access and data pipelines are not equally open to allemployees. There can be a disconnection between employees desire to know, theircollective need to know, and the information gatekeepers willingness fordisclosure. There is no exception to the fact that people are curious of all things 4
  • 5. and can have equally curious opinions on all things. Is it imperative to make fulldisclosure in order to build organizational trust? Some would think so. The erosionof privacy and the willful disclosure of personal information witnessed in socialmedia and television also impacts the workplace. There is also no denial of the power that knowledge management affords tothose in control of it. Every workplace presents these facts. Employees normallywant to know whats going on even if the matter has little to with their individualterms of employment. In contradiction, employment terms can delineate specifiedroles for communicators. Some, however, do not feel constrained by a need toknow paradigm. We can attribute this need to comment on all things, particularlyon areas outside of professional experience or employment responsibility, to falsepluralism, a growing lack of privacy within and outside of the workplace, thepresumption of another‟s interest in my contrary opinion, or perhaps inadequateworkload. Within any organization structure we can sometimes find ourselvesdistanced from decision-making. The popular television series “Undercover Boss”often reveals management‟s failure to listen to employee insights. Once the bossbridges the physical gap and listens to employees things change for the employee‟sgood. Correspondingly the boss can be (not always) presented as a caring employerkept ignorant by middle management. The series popularizes the failure tocommunicate into urban legend and universal truth. Such entertainment celebratesunderdog employees being rewarded for devotion, diligence and competence.Belief that good work gets unrecognized and goes unrewarded is a manifestation ofa sense of hopeless in the contemporary workplace. There is a deep yearning forhonesty, respect and authentic engagement in the workplace. Effectivecommunication creates moments or opportunities for connection on emotional andpersonal levels of knowing the boss, the company, and the team. The cause for thisemotional need could be linked to disintegration of the traditional nuclear family,limited opportunity for socialization outside of work, and lack of off-line, real-timeface-to-face networking. Creating opportunities for making authentic personal connections in theworkplace isn‟t easy, possible or always likely. Distance from decision-making canoccur due to our differences in scopes of practice or physical locations. The 5
  • 6. executive rarely considers the receiving room employees opinion on a corporatemerger or buy out. Unless, of course, the merger is between receiving rooms or theemployee is a major shareholder or one engaged in corporate espionage! We canalso find ourselves removed from decision-making by a lack of understanding. Thelogic informing the decision might include facts or interpretation thereof that isoutside our knowledge base, experiential familiarity or functional specialization.Accountants interpretations of financial statements can befuddle others. Changesin one section of an organization can be distorted/magnified in effect andperception within another section. Knowing when we are getting out of scope issometimes impossible, especially when we‟ve been taught to use our voices. Cognitive, political, social, physical and professional distance fromdecision-making increases the probability of both misinterpretation of actions anddissatisfaction with outcomes. We can move to conclusions and becomeemotionally invested by assumptions and biases within our own limitingperspectives of what is occurring. Our individual interpretations of othersdecisions can be informed by our own expectations for entitlements, desire tomaintain status quo, or perceived conflict with a figured future state. Too often ourown coloring isnt as visible to us as to others. We can be driven to acknowledgeuncomfortable truths about ourselves when scrutinizing anothers perceived lack ofcommunication--if we engage with honesty and positive intention. Clearly there is room for self-deception, intentional misinterpretation, gossipand fear mongering. We are not always honest in our self-assessments, let aloneaccurate in our evaluations of others intentions and motives. Shouts ofcommunication failure are not always factual indications to a lack ofcommunication or ineffective communication. Effective communication does notuniformly bring forth positive responses in its targeted audiences. Circumstance,what is being communicated, and culture are three factors influencing emotionalaffect. Not all interpretations of fact are proffered with innocence or embellishedwith hope for a better tomorrow. Character slander is an acceptable response tacticin some cultures: „I don‟t like your opinion; therefore, you are an immoral person.”Equally, attitudes to lying and unethical behavior can be legitimized by efforts toachieve hidden agendas. 6
  • 7. Opinion without restraint is one of the major sources of conflict in theworkplace. We have encouraged and valorized the right to express opinion as partof our self-esteem culture. There is only tenuous connection between one‟s degreeof self-esteem and another‟s prediction of our expertise or professional authority.To indicate that others‟ opinion do not matter or is irrelevant or trivial isconsidered tantamount to an attack upon their individual identities. Equality ofopinion is a self-serving myth. We live in an era that can assert the need forequality in decision-making over the authority of workplace common sense. Thisphenomenon can be linked to the sociological decline in respect for and trust inauthority. In contemporary society authority is to be suspected. We heraldtransparency as an antidote to this fear. In a state of transparency all matters areopen to opinion and interpretation. When authority is rejected, every extraneousopinion is to be elevated for formal consideration. The ridiculous extreme of thisphenomenon is referendum voting on singular issues driven by minority interests.Once a referendum is in process what drives the majority to vote? A desire to influence the decision-making governed by the authority ofanother is part of the democratic process identifying our nation. The transfer ofrepublican principles to management as opposed to governance of ourorganizations is neither desirable nor feasible. We have clearly segregated rightsand no assumption of equality. Why then is it feasible to expect wholesaleconsultation? Management, faculty, excluded, and staff are not treated equally inpay, privileges, or decision-making capacities. Within each of the individualgroups there are differentiated rights and unique expectations. We can presentdissatisfaction with the lack of equality but there are no non-legal means to changethese differences. They are systemic differences inherent to organizational culture.The desire for equality of pay and benefits is most acute when others decisionsimpact us by changing benefits, hours of work, traditional working patterns,elimination of services or reductions. When responding to others decisionsimpacting us we can present behavior where we claim to have better insight andknow-how than those persons with the authority to decide. The tension between owned authority and the desire for the decision-makingpower of another is the source of bad feelings and a sense of powerlessness in theworkplace. A desire to be in control of anothers domain establishes the need for anotherness comparable to the definition of an enemy. Perhaps this sense of 7
  • 8. alienation and threat is a variation on the theme of the famous statement: "I haveseen the enemy, and it is us!" The enemy of workplace satisfaction is the envy ofpower seated in the desire to be in control within the workplace. The myth ofseeding power within hierarchical structures flows from the same source as thefaux egalitarianism propagated in social media. So much of our lives is directed byexternal and extraneous forces that we seek to bring order by force of will. Facedwith the merciless shifts of resource-based economics, unable to cope with theincreasing erosion of privacy, we stake our ground zero in one of the most artificialgeographies of self-definition: the workplace. Authentic workplace engagement recognizes power imbalances and thedesire for engagement on intellectual, spiritual, and/or emotional levels.Communication of the possibility for this workplace connectivity must recognize ashifting of the separation of place of work from personal living space. Workplacesare increasingly more like places of leisure where people make friends and earn aliving while building relationships. Traditional work structures and currentexpectations for engagement can be at odds and cause structural barriers foreffective communication. 8
  • 9. II: 11 Steps to Improving Workplace Communications*1. Identify changes that have occurred to leadership, decision-making, and desire fulfillment opportunities.Some of these destabilizing influences are local and others are global. Forexample we can trace organizational instability to some of the following: Senior leadership once held long tenure and many staff have had many years of familiarity with decision-making and processes. Changes in leadership have been abrupt. There is confusion over how decisions get made. There is a budgetary reduction; increasing/declining student numbers directly impact staffing level; radical changes in programming clusters and delivery strategies; evolving changes to student demographics, etc. Globally there is a revolution taking place in the field of education. New funding and accountability protocols are being developed around graduation rates, not overall enrolments. Instructors no longer have complete autonomy in their classrooms, and students are demanding edutainment, etc. Overall, there is a high degree of uncertainty in the field of post- secondary education. We can describe sources of anxiety related to concerns with: funding, delivery models, ownership of curriculum, changing student demographics, effects of a super-heated economy, fear of loss of control, erosion of trust in public leadership, fear for and suspicion of what the future will bring, etc.2. Name the resulting atmosphere of change.Global and local destabilization within the field of postsecondary educationis creating an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and distrust in manyorganizations..Is there an inordinate degree of anxiety over future prospects? Why? Whatare the levels of stress, worry, suspicion, distrust, or evidence of a lack ofconfidence in strategic directions. 9
  • 10. 3. Define the attributes and techniques for achieving effective workplace communication. (The following suggestions are not presented in order of importance.) An effective communications policy clearly articulates decision- making authorities as well as expectations for consultation, information gathering and information sharing as appropriate to circumstance. Effective communication practices will honor decision-making authorities as defined by position descriptions and the college organizational chart. Effective communication means that all employees are aware of their own and others’ decision-making authorities and responsibilities. Effective communication presents a duty to consult and negotiate as appropriate to context. Effective communication recognizes others’ legitimate needs for information beyond the general ‘right/like to know’ in order for them to perform their individual duties. Effective communication enables cross-departmental working relationships, innovation and collaboration. Effective communication tells the story of ‘why we have changed’ in relation to historical and contemporary business activities. Effective communication responds to the unique barriers to information sharing and information awareness within an 10
  • 11. organization and mediates according to individual and group needs. Effective communication demonstrates respect for the talents, abilities and contributions of all employees. Effective communication motivates employees to share in and celebrate institutional accomplishments.4. Acquire knowledge of existing communications theory and practice, and answer this question: „How are theories of communication presently being applied in your organization?‟ Define the organization’s communication practices, its baseline assumptions about communications, and formalize its expectations for communications in guidelines and policies. Define and agree upon what effective communication is meant to accomplish.5. Recognize and understand the perspectives of others relative to the positions they hold in the organization. Occupation and job role can influence individual contributions to harmony in the workplace and resistance to change. Effective communication requires relationship building. What evidence is there of assessment of failed or failing relationships? What are the sources of institutional conflict and disagreement? Where is there evidence of ownership and responsibility? Avoid the name- to- blame game here as the intention is to identify positional authorities with competing or contradictory interests and to see opportunity for mediation and achieving concurrence. Here there’s opportunity to name some of the positional moose causing anxiety. 11
  • 12. 6. Define existing communications culture in relation to knowledge acquired of communications effectiveness. The existing communication culture is weak and is being further weakened by lack of solidarity, anxiety, and confidence in the future.7. Specify how the organization presents communication change readiness. What are the elements of this readiness? The participation rate of surveys on communication effectiveness can indicate a genuine willingness to identify the issues undermining effective communication.8. Identify the specific systems, relationships, processes and people creating conflicts negatively impacting communications. A. Goals of the institution are misaligned with that of individual employees. Increase and improve opportunity for attaining personal satisfaction in the workplace. B. Disrespect for institutional history, institutional legacy. C. Disagreement with the shift of focus from the college being a Teaching centered institution to becoming a Learning centered institution. D. Instructional authority is being dissipated/eroded/diminished by relegating instructors to Subject Matter Experts in a design and delivery team where they are 1 of 5 decision-makers. E. Disfavor with utilization of distributed learning model. F. Historical labor/management relationship has been impacted by frequent and lengthy contract negotiations in recent years. G. Fear of Digital Immigrants in an organization given to wholesale use of new learning technologies. H. Dissatisfaction with decisions on program directions, service levels, workflow expectations, etc. I. Propensity for gossip and biased speculation on why decisions have been made, etc.9. Specify behavior and system changes required to improve communications. 12
  • 13. Name the challenges and identify the existing deficits. Encourage individualownership of the need to improve communications and clearly articulateinstitutional expectation for excellence in communication. Present astrategic communication plan for college approval.10.Clarify every employee‟s communication responsibilities relative to achieving organizational success.Write communications expectations and contributions into job descriptions,goals and objectives, and include assessment in performance evaluations.11.Provide opportunities for connection on the emotional and personal levels.Grow empathy and mutual understanding to engender trust and respect.I wish to acknowledge the contributions of my Portage College colleagues inthe development of the ideas and the articulation of these 11 steps. Thefollowing are members of the Internal Communication Committee ofPortage College: Leslie Johnson, Connie Olstad, David Paul, CathyMacGillivray, Richard Cloutier, Patricia O‟Connor, Doreen Leitch, FelicityBergman, Fatema Taha, Carrie Froehler, and Janice Bryks.Copyright Trent Keough 2013 13