Organisational efficiency/effectiveness cannot merely be derived by excellence in the organisation’s field of specialisation, as the very notion of an organisation depends on interdependence, which requires interaction, which cannot take place without communication. Although people communicate, how effective they are is getting to be an issue of extreme relevance, in the modern context of globalisation that necessitates not merely inter organisational but intra organisational communication. Ineffectiveness in communication can thus, at a primary level, lead to miscommunication, creating misunderstanding and at worst resulting in a complete breakdown in communication, which can create issues in thriving and even survival. Fostering effectiveness in communication is a task that is possible and yields valuable results, if certain basic and simple measures are instituted.
Communication; organisational efficiency/effectiveness; communication channels; communication modes; strategies for enhancing effectiveness.
Every company has two organisational structures: The formal one is written on the charts; the other is the everyday relationship of the men and women in the organisation.
Harold S Geneen
The latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed high rates of attrition, which have largely been attributed to globalisation and the resultant free availability of jobs. However, if examined closely, this proposition, though it appears true on the surface, hides below it a reality that needs to be acknowledged, if one wishes to address it. As per a study conducted by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, through a Gallup Poll and published in First Break All The Rules, people leave not organisations, but their bosses; and, the relationship between bosses and subordinates is what creates organisational culture that rests itself on the relationships that get built across hierarchies, based on communication.
Thus, if examined closely, it is not difficult to appreciate that communication is the lifeblood of an organisation, without which it will fail to function effectively, will be unable to reach its goals and will ultimately perish.
However, in the era of (super) specialisation and an increasing narrowing down of skill sets, this proposition would be considered highly debatable, as one line of thought believes that being proficient in one’s area of specialisation is all that matters, since one professes it to be one’s chief skill set and all else becomes secondary.
What this line of thinking misses though is that in the times of super specialisation, in the business interests of varied organisations, what can land one a job and help one sustain in and move on to another, if need be, is a general skill set, which rests primarily, among other things, in communication. A case in point, in this light, is that of Vanaz Engineers, which realising the obstacles that it was facing, due to poor communication, addressed the issue, making it a highly attractive organisation to work for, as regards organisational culture, sustained through strong communication channels.
Not being an organisation, where communication would be considered a primary skill set, given its Engineering background, this case merely goes on to prove that any organisation can and would no doubt train its employees in the ‘specific’ skills they desire, but without the ability to communicate, as Lee Iacocca opines, “you can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere.”
It is in this context that the ability to communicate effectively has to be seen as a primary skill set that every employee in an organisation should possess, to ensure not merely the flourishing, but even the survival of an organisation; and, it is in this light that the role of communication in fostering organisational effectiveness needs to be examined.
While this issue has been dealt with widely, as also studied for over two decades, by the writer herself, it throws up new concerns and insights, every time it is approached, as was realised during the research conducted, through interviews and questionnaires over six months. More importantly, given that it is an issue that has still not been resolved, despite being one that has plagued organisations, since times immemorial, and given that it continues to be the unnoticed affliction that affects most organisations, its dimensions and effect need deliberation.
Ineffectiveness in organisational communication basically afflicts both the channels of communication and modes of communication and manifests itself in varied ways, resulting in diverse consequences, depending on its nature and the channel/mode it infects.
Channels of Organisational Communication
The daily functioning of an organisation essentially takes place through communication at various levels and through numerous formats. Whatever its content, however, this communication follows certain channels, which if not used effectively can result in miscommunication or at times a complete breakdown in the communication process.
Vertical: Being the most common channel of communication this comprises two lines of communication – downward and upward. While the former includes communication that flows from the bosses to the subordinates, the latter includes all communication that flows from the subordinates to the bosses.
Being the backbone of communication in any organisation, this also forms the channel that is often ridden by maximum problems.
While downward communication basically hits roadblocks in the area of hesitation on the part of the seniors, in openly acknowledging the achievements of their subordinates, due to the fear of it causing jealousy among other colleagues or a latent fear that this might make the subordinate egoistical or overconfident; upward communication faces the issue of availability of the seniors to discuss issues, their openness in accepting alternative points of view and the fear of status. This makes it difficult for subordinates to be open and frank, since they are afraid of the effect it might have on their position, in the long run.
While obstacles in downward communication thus leads to de- motivation, those in upward communication lead to vitiating the atmosphere in the workplace and is fairly likely to result in back biting and gossip.
Horizontal communication, which revolves around people at the same level, on the other hand, may be marked by jealousy and a suspicion about one’s colleagues, resulting in withholding of information or, in extreme cases, deliberate manipulation of information. What is often not realised, in this context, that though each department has its own function, isolation of departments and their being cut off from each other is bound to affect organisational effectiveness, as any organisation is basically the sum total of all its parts. Moreover, gaps in horizontal communication are often masked, making their impact more insidious. Paradoxically, it may even happen that while colleagues may get along with each other on informal platforms of communication, like get-togethers or lunch hours, their official interaction may get marred by difference in priorities, approaches or division among lines of gender, age, cultural difference etc., or vice versa.
A case in point was a particular branch of a nationalised bank, where the working atmosphere got vitiated, after an otherwise fairly tightly knit group began to disintegrate, after a new employee began to carry non vegetarian food for lunch, resulting in her isolation and making her wrongly believe that the rest of the group, which kept away from her during lunch hour, was discriminating against her, since she was from a different linguistic background.
When the two aforementioned channels of communication fail or develop issues, they get subsumed by lateral communication and grapevine communication, which though necessary as channels o organisational communication can prove highly detrimental, if they supersede or attempt to replace vertical and horizontal communication, which should remain the primary channels of official communication, in an organisation.
Lateral communication occurs, when levels are skipped/side stepped, in the process of communication. While this commonly takes place, while extending courtesies to people, especially in the form of greeting, it may prove to be harmful, if lateral communication is used to replace/subvert vertical communication, though at times situations may demand resorting to lateral communication and it may even prove advisable.
Thus, an employee might resort to lateral communication, in case s/he needs some confidential professional advice, especially if the offending party falls in the direct line of the aggrieved employee’s vertical communication channel. Common cases in point, in the current context, are cases of sexual harassment or grievance, where if the boss is the offending party, it would hardly be advisable to report the matter directly to him/her. So too, if the boss is unavailable due to any number of reasons, an employee might be forced to resort to lateral communication, most importantly in matters of great significance that may need urgent attention/resolution.
What makes it an impediment though is that most employees rely upon it to subvert authority and gain favour, sending out signals to their own bosses that their authority stands questioned and that these employees can get their way no matter what, by subverting the official channels of communication. Though this happens fairly frequently, in family run businesses, it to a greater or lesser extent affects most organisations and can prove detrimental to the morale of its employees. The ‘yes man’ or the one identified as the ‘hanh ji’ employee in Indian lingo is a manifestation of an employee, who relies primarily on lateral communication. What is worse is that in most organisations this spreads as a strategy for communication and can result in promoting mediocrity.
While all the other channels are integral aspects of formal communication, Grapevine communication, given its nature, is an informal communication channel. Understood by most as office gossip or rumours, it is bound to exist in any organisation and paradoxically is reflective of the strong bonds that its employees may share. Moving as the name suggests, in any direction and being a channel, whose origin cannot be traced, being quintessentially ‘unofficial’, it is one of the fastest spreading channels of communication. And, while it may be neither advisable nor possible to completely wipe away its existence, it is extremely essential to ensure that it does not become the official channel of communication, as it can lead to a lot of miscommunication and mischief. However, in organisations where the other channels are not strong or are rid with a lot of delay/bureaucracy, it becomes impossible to prevent grapevine from becoming the main channel of communication.
On the one hand, grapevine can lead to miscommunication, ignorance or a complete breakdown in communication, while on the other it can result in a great degree of manipulation and maliciousness. So too, while it may foster networking, it would be for the wrong reasons and may result in bonds that are driven by selfish interests, rather than ones that reflect genuineness.
Whatever its ill-effects, however, a wise organisation uses grapevine communication to float ideas and test their strength, before announcing them as decisions/policies. This can result in preventing a lot of bad blood or forestall the eventuality of retracting or back tracking one’s policies/decisions.
Modes of Communication
While channels are an important form of organisational communication that may be affected by ineffectiveness, the other primary level that reflects inefficiency in organisational communication is the modes used in organisational communication.
Communication primarily takes two forms, communication that uses words i.e. verbal communication that in itself can either be oral/spoken or written and the one without the use of words i.e. non verbal or paralinguistic communication; and though both these modes can be afflicted by ineffectiveness, their manifestation can be very different.
Verbal Communication in an organisation takes varied forms, from face to face and telephonic conversations to meetings, briefings, letters, emails, fax, memos etc. Given its diverse nature, however, the etiquette that goes with every format is vastly different, often resulting in communication errors. A common internet email, the authenticity of the content of which may be suspect states that an employee of a reputed IT organisation had asked for leave by writing an email stating, “I need leave as I am marrying my daughter.” It is surprising that he did not find himself arrested for violating social norms of behaviour.
Oral Communication, as an aspect of verbal communication, is often rid with errors that could include numerous areas - from wrong choice of vocabulary, like a trainee greeting the Senior Management members saying ‘Hi guys!’ to the diction, tone, pace, speed, pauses, all of which become highly consequential, both in the global context as well as that of cultural variation, within the country. A common pronunciation error, in the Indian context, is often a mix up between long and short vowels; thus, an innocent mispronunciation ‘I mate her’ instead of ‘I met her’ can result in one being slapped with sexual harassment charges.
So too, every medium has its own format and the etiquette that goes with it. For example, a telephonic conversation initiated with ‘Hi who’s this?’ after one has called another person is considered rude. In one such instance, in an organisation, when this question received the retort, ‘Could you please identify yourself first, since you are the one who has called?’ created a communication issue between two colleagues. While the former found the latter unnecessarily strict, the latter felt that the former’s approach was rude and lacked basic communication etiquette. Though this was later sorted out, an error of this nature could be enough to break down the relations between colleagues.
Written Communication, as against oral communication, is a record that can be referred to repeatedly and therefore becomes a permanent record of one’s faux pas. Moreover, making more time available to send/peruse the communication, there is less scope to hide or explain away those errors.
Language being an evolving branch of knowledge that changes with time, space and culture, both the formats of and expectations from written communication keep changing. So too, newer formats keep evolving, with changing technology. For example, letters have been largely replaced with emails, as a format for most official communication.
In written communication, over and above being aware of and receptive to changing formats, spellings, grammar and punctuation play an extremely important role, as a change/an error in any one could completely change the meaning of what is being communicated. Its value can be understood by the manner in which the sentence ‘A woman without her man is nothing’ can be punctuated. While on the one hand it can be punctuated as ‘A woman, without her man, is nothing’, on the other it could be ‘A woman, without her, man is nothing’. A simple shift in a comma can thus change the meaning to its opposite, creating the scope for a great deal of miscommunication.
The most difficult of the modes of communication to master and interpret, Non Verbal or Paralinguistic Communication takes various forms – body language (including posture and gestures), eye contact, facial expressions, dressing, signs and symbols and silence. This is because there is a great deal of cultural variation in the meaning and acceptability of various manifestations of paralinguistic communication. It is thus very important to be observant, alert and adaptable, as regards paralinguistic communication, since it is often accorded greater value than verbal communication. What one’s face reveals might thus be a truer indicator of one’s state of mind than the words one chooses to express oneself.
In the global context, it is therefore vital to study the cultural implications of paralinguistic communication and be willing to accommodate them. Whereas in India keeping a reasonable distance among members of opposite genders, in professional spaces, is the accepted norm, in many western countries, it is common to greet members of either gender by hugging them and lightly kissing both the cheeks. If a person unused to it were to overreact to such a simple gesture of greeting, it could create awkwardness or in extreme situations result in a total breakdown in communication, as one of the parties may take offence.
Research Study and Results
A study was conducted across organisations, to check approaches to communication in enhancing/affecting organisational effectiveness/efficiency. Though the organisations studied belonged to different verticals, both employees and HR departments largely believed that their organisation was affected by communication related issues and that effective communication was extremely necessary for organisational effectiveness. However, HR departments across organisations differed in their approach, as to how they would apply effectiveness in communication in the context of employees. Whereas the HR department of all the organisations surveyed agreed that they would definitely consider it extremely valuable in hiring and promoting an employee, they were not in agreement in the context of the role of effectiveness in communication in firing an employee and stood equally divided on the matter.
Paradoxically, it was revealed that the only organisation, which claimed that they did not suffer from communication issues, was in fact actually not aware that they did, since though they claimed that they were effective in all modes and channels of communication, the questionnaires they filled reflected contradictions and also errors in communication modes – especially spellings, punctuation and grammar. Moreover, the hesitation and number of errors committed, while interacting with the employees of this organisation, clearly showed that while they faced a problem, they were oblivious to it.
Of the organisations and employees, who admitted to facing communication issues, 75% felt that the issues were in both oral and written communication, while the remaining 25% felt that the issues were confined to oral communication.
Not surprisingly, while everyone admitted that the grapevine communication in their organisation was effective, major problems were being faced in the areas of downward communication and violation of protocol, in dealing with senior members in the organisation; the latter being indicative of the generation gap that is emerging, due to the extremely casual vocabulary adopted by the younger generation, as a result of overdependence on technology and paucity in reading. While problems experienced in oral communication by the employees were in the areas of clarity of content and completeness, with courtesy and confidence following as a close second, the HR largely claimed to have issues as regards conciseness, when the employees communicated with them. On the other hand, both the HR and the employees felt that the main concerns in written communication were in the areas of timeliness and completeness of information, followed by courtesy and grammar. So too, communication issues were found to occur most in meetings, when different communication formats were compared.
So too, while it was seen that companies had immensely benefitted due to effective communication in getting pending work done, handling emergencies and executing policies, they had suffered in project deadlines getting delayed, people turning up on holidays, due to last minute communication, while firing an employee and in dealing with serious issues of grave significance.
Means for Enhancing Organisational Communication
While the importance of effectiveness in communication for the smooth functioning and growth of an organisation cannot be denied, it also needs to be acknowledged that most organisations suffer from its absence to a greater or lesser extent. However addressing these issues is not particularly difficult, if certain basic steps are implemented:
While issues in communication can result from a poor command over communication, to taking the concern with communication very lightly, over and above the problems that can arise, due to improper use of channels and modes, a breakdown in communication can also result from a reason as innocuous as multitasking, resulting in reduced focus; and while it may be possible to apologise and address to the extent possible issues resulting from poor communication, what cannot be undone is the poor impression it leaves. Resulting in the least in leaving a poor taste or wasting the time of another, at worst it can result in a total breakdown in communication in an organisation, causing issues as grave as legal cases or attrition.
In fact, if intra organisation communication itself is such an uphill task, then multiple locations and inter organisation communication, that define the modern day working context, are bound to complicate the matter to a much greater extent. However, this is really not a cause for worry for those who are aware of the obstacles that can arise in effective communication and are willing to rise up to the challenge of negotiating this difficult but not impossible task. For, after all, as opined by Brian Tracy, “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”
Prof. Preeti Shirodkar