UK: FEEDBACK FAILURES. - What to do when managers don't know that they don't know.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What to do when managers don't know that they don't know.

Communication problems are almost as old as management itself. And - far from diminishing - they continually increase, since modern management philosophies rely ever more heavily on effective communication. Yet many businesses seem blissfully unaware of their existence. 'The information-is-power belief is still widely held,' says Gillian Laidlaw of management consultants Kinsley Lord. Some organisations still have a patronising attitude about how much people 'need to know'. Further, on a purely technical level, 'Many people have not been taught to communicate and do so poorly. It is imperative that organisations know what is working from a communication point of view, and what is not.' Evidently, a lot of businesses do not know. Recent research by consultants Smythe Dorward Lambert tends to confirm that many companies are beset with communication problems, although senior managers often remain in ignorance. The survey covered over 1,300 employees, one third of whom did not trust information received from senior managers, who they believed to be out of touch with staff attitudes. And almost half the employees who had been involved in change programmes had not been consulted about changes affecting them. 'People are better informed today about what's happening in the outside world, and they expect that to continue at work,' observes Smythe Dorward's Hilary Scarlett.

Organisations concerned to test the effectiveness of their internal communications are turning to communications audits - which are often conducted, for the sake of objectivity, by external consultants. Smythe Doward's audit clients include undertakings as various as the Prudential, Bass Brewers and the Natural History Museum. The Metropolitan Police carries out occasional audits of its 28,000 officers and 17,000 civilian staff. The BBC runs regular surveys of attitudes towards work among its 24,000 employees, and a communication audit is included as part of the process. Alaric Mostyn, head of the BBC's internal communications, believes that this throws up important information. 'Within departments we have found a clear link between good communication and the motivation of employees.' Clearly, he adds, it is the behaviour of managers - rather than newsletters, etc - which makes the difference.

However Mostyn warns against taking audits at random. 'They are only a good thing if you ask the right questions and get results that you can use to make the organisation more effective. The audit should encourage action at every level' - within teams and divisions, and in the upper echelons. Indeed, unless action follows, audits will only do harm, says Andy Knott of communication and change consultants Hedron. 'Audits which raise expectations that something will change, and then no action is taken - they are infinitely worse than doing no audit at all.' Hedron's survey techniques are intended to lead to results, measuring factors that can be put into action directly. Knott contrasts unhelpful research outputs like 'morale is low' with useful findings such as 'employees want more detailed feedback on the division's performance'.

Knott agrees wholeheartedly with Mostyn that there is 'a correlation between business performance and organisational communication'. But not every business finds it necessary to measure the information flows, and to some people communication audits smack too much of paying to find out what you should already know. Rentokil, for example, has no formal audit procedure.

'Good communication is part of our culture,' claims corporate affairs director Barbara Shove. 'We don't have a personnel department, so our managers learn to handle their own people and problems. And the company is structured in such a way that managers are very accessible, and problems cannot easily be hidden.' Rentokil was Britain's Most Admired Company in 1994. A lot of less admired companies prefer to have the reassurance of a communication health check.

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