Content Communication, Relational Communication (2 of 2)

Content communication — the whats, whens and whys of day-to-day interaction — is extremely seductive in its tangibility. But leaders cannot afford to underestimate the impact of relational communication in the functioning of any human system.   

To understand the enormity of this influence, put yourself in the shoes of a woman working in an office full of men who believe that a woman’s role in business ends at answering telephones and serving coffee.

These attitudes would never be communicated formally, of course. They would never appear in the employee handbook or be found in the organization’s  mission statement. They would never, in other words, find expression in content communication.

But wouldn’t the point still get across? Wouldn’t the women there have a pretty good idea of the lay of the land, through the jobs they were given or not given, the information that was shared with or withheld from them?

Wouldn’t the meetings they were invited to or excluded from, the greeting they received or didn’t receive in the hallway say all that needs to be said?

Though organizational attention typically focuses almost entirely on the content of communication systems, every encounter, no matter how dry or mundane, impacts personal relationships as well.

How we ask for a phone number, how we hold ourselves as we wait for it to be found, how we take leave of the employee who gave it to us — these all send relational messages that have real, tangible effects on the workplace.

This is particularly true of leaders. The way we interact with our employees sends countless messages about the status and parameters of relationships with them. And those messages in turn influence countless human dynamics, from how willingly employees collaborate with us and how freely they share information, to how likely they are to offer possible solutions and how ready they are to go the extra mile when needed.

Outstanding organizations, then, are distinguished by the quality of their relational communication as much as by the quality of their content communication.

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Content Communication, Relational Communication (1 of 2)

Communication can be divided into two broad categories: content and relational.

Content is the what of any message. It is the facts and figures, the ideas and opinions that we transmit through e-mails, conversations, memos, or notes on the bulletin board. It is anything that can be expressed in words.

Relational communication pertains to the who of any interaction. Though we may be unaware of it, every instance of content communication is surrounded by a field of relational communication that reveals the way parties view and are viewed by each other. It defines, in large part, the nature of the relationship between the two of them.

Three points about relational communication bear particular emphasis:

  • Relational communication is a direct reflection of our below-the-line attitudes. Because we do not consciously shape relational communication, its messages spring unfiltered from our deepest personal thinking. Relational communication, then, provides a direct window into the below-the-line attitudes, values and beliefs we hold.
  • We are communicating relationally 100 percent of the time. Content communication is largely a matter of conscious choice: we make a phone call or we don’t, we send an email or we don’t. Relational communication, however, is not a matter of choice. We are constantly broadcasting relational messages, whether we realize it or not. This means that our beliefs and values (as well as our biases and prejudices) are always leaking out to one degree or another.
  • Relational messages are more important to us. Because relational messages are linked to how we are perceived and valued, our perception of what is being communicated relationally is always more important to us than content communication. And when the two conflict, we will always give more weight to the relational message (the brusque tone, the clenched jaw) than the content message (“no, I’m not upset”).

For leaders seeking to build outstanding human systems, it is imperative to remember that every interaction transmits not only surface-level information, but also deeper messages about the degree to which we respect, value, and appreciate others.

Every quick phone call, every offhand comment and conversation in the hallway, answers, for others, the question “how do you see and value me?” Over time these relational messages become as clear as any email or memo – and they exert enormous impact on interpersonal dynamics and, in turn, organizational performance.

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Communication and the Challenge of Conveying Rationale

Of the many content areas workplace communication can be divided into, few are more prone to difficulties than organizational choices and decisions.  The who’s, what’s, and where’s of decisions are typically conveyed with acceptable clarity and consistency. The rationale behind them, however, is not. 

In practical terms, this means that while employees typically receive the operational outlines of upcoming changes—this project is being cut, that department is being reorganized—the reasons necessitating those changes — the why behind them — will often remain a mystery.

As a result, employees are able to follow the narrow instructions they are given, but are powerless to go beyond this task or this job. They are therefore unable to help leadership accomplish the higher-level goals that those  instructions were designed to achieve.

A leader might, for example, ask that a lamp be removed from a table.  His employees can comply with that request easily enough, but unless they are told why—the room is being redecorated and the lamp is the wrong shade of yellow, the desk needs to be dusted, more light is needed in another part of the room—they cannot undertake other initiatives that would further the leader’s ultimate aim.

Without more information about the rationale behind the decision, they cannot take it upon themselves to remove the yellow potted plant as well, or retrieve the duster from the closet, or turn on an overhead light. They can do nothing but wait for their next directive.

Explaining the thinking behind decisions also helps employees’ participation become increasingly sophisticated. It allows employees at all levels to gain a management-view of organizational challenges, which enables them to make greater and more effective contributions to solving future problems.

As a leader, then, you can have enormous impact on your organization simply by communicating the reasons underlying decision as widely as you communicate the decisions themselves.

Spelling out the “why” of choices makes the decision-making process more transparent, helps build trust, and helps employees accept decisions that may be difficult.

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Types of Workplace Communication and Why they Matter

When leaders assess organizational communication, they often use generalizations such as “good communication” or “communication problems.” Such expressions seem natural, but in fact obscure a great variety of context and circumstance.

To better understand the variety of workplace communication, it can be helpful to think in terms of topic-specific categories of communication. One organization, for example, might excel at communicating policies but struggle in areas of training and skill development. Another might communicate goals and objectives effectively but stumble in conveying organizational vision and mission.

In our workshops we sometimes have participants list those areas in which they personally need communication to do their jobs effectively. From the answers given, general categories can be identified that would be found in most organizations. These include:

  • Vision and mission
  • Goals and objectives
  • Job descriptions
  • Policies and procedures
  • Standards and expectations
  • Organizational relationships and structures
  • Feedback
  • Decisions and the rationale behind them
  • Training and orientation
  • Available resources
  • Deadlines and priorities
  • Plans and changes
  • Hot issues
  • Market conditions

Leaders can begin identifying categories relevant to their own organization by posing to themselves and – more importantly – to their employees a few simple questions: What do I need to know to do my job effectively? What additional information would increase my capacity to act confidently and proactively? In what areas does a lack of facts or information hinder my performance?

Undertaking this type of analysis is important because rarely is communication “good” or “bad” throughout the entirety of an organization. Rather its quality depends on what is being conveyed.

For example, communication is strongest in concrete but prosaic areas like policies, procedures, and job descriptions, and much weaker in more abstract but substantive areas like vision, mission, and big-picture goals.

Identifying these content areas allows organizations to more accurately assess exactly how and where communications succeed and falter – and to take steps accordingly.

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Community, Communion, and the Human Side of Communication

Any time two or more people work in tandem, they create a human system.  And that system will be only as effective as the patterns of communication that support it. For communication is the means by which diverse talents can be directed toward a shared goal, the way a collection of individual I’s can be transformed into a cohesive and capable we.

In a very real sense, communication is what makes coherent, collective action possible.

But while communication allows us to express ourselves and gather information, it also builds ties of association and relationship. It draws individuals and groups together into a shared community of thought and discussion, if only for the duration of a conversation.

Communication can be understood, then, as the process of making things common. Linguistically related to “common,” “communion,” and “community,” communication can be viewed as the means by which we make our internal thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions available to those around us for external discussion and action. It is the way we share of ourselves and have access to the experience of others.

This community-building function is of great importance in the workplace. For only to the degree that leaders are willing to enter into “communion” with their employees will they be able to establish effective patterns of association. If they hold themselves above or apart from employees, communication will inevitably falter, for the very foundation on which it rests will be undermined and unsound.

Effective communication, then, depends as much on what leaders feel or don’t feel about their employees, as it does on what they say or don’t say. It depends as much on the values, beliefs, and attitudes they hold as the structures, systems, and approaches they build.

Routine interaction may involve countless utilitarian exchanges. But at the end of the day, communication is a quintessentially human endeavor that involves much more than the surface-level transmission of facts and information.

No matter how large organizations might grow, then, and no matter how remote and removed various parties might seem from each other, communication must always be approached as a matter of one human being connecting with another. Anything less will fail to fully leverage the human potential available and inherent in the system as a whole.

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