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.