The global economic downturn has been more than just a recession. It has signaled an era of unprecedented change, and a time of turbulence for organizations, organizational leadership and organizational communication. Robinson and Harvey (2008) observed that the, “acceleration of globalization has created a chaotic state of change as businesses struggle to adapt new paradigms of leadership, in which established tried and tested approaches may no longer be effective.” Critical to navigating through the largely uncharted territory of this new world at work, is the role of communication, and the importance of understanding communication concepts and developments between leaders and followers within this new world.
A basic communication model would define communication as, “a process by which information and understanding are transferred between a sender and a receiver” (Richard Daft, The Leadership Experience, 2008, p. 260). Fundamental to the communication process is the understanding that a message is encoded and sent via a channel (medium or method), to a receiver, who in turn decodes the message, and subsequently encodes a return message via feedback. And so the communication process begins, and continues. Burnland’s (Towards a meaning centered philosophy on communication, 1962, p. 197 – 211) transactional model of communication assumes that messages are being sent and received simultaneously by senders and receivers, and hence the ongoing continuous nature of the process of communication. This basic transactional communication model remains true within our new world; however the information, methods and manners within which these messages are being sent and received, has radically changed. Furthermore, that rate at which information is being communicated, as well as the volume of information being communicated is challenging our traditional understanding of organizational communication, and the role leadership fulfills within the communication process.
Communication = personality + complexity x process – permanency
In considering the components of the leader follower relationship within this new world at work, the following guidelines are recommended as we seek to navigate through these turbulent waters.
Firstly, communication involves the entire person – ego, self image, and personality. “Communication is more than just a set of behaviours; it is the primary, defining characteristics of a human being. Our view of self, others, the world and work is shaped, defined, and maintained, through communication. It follows to observe that as technology increasingly shapes and defines the world we live in, it must also inform our communication styles and methods and become an intricate component of our new world of work. In this regard, where traditionally face to face dialogue would be deemed as the richest channel for communication, our new world, with its new generations is challenging us to consider the information highway with its multiple applications and utilities as a viable alternative. This remains largely unexplored by many organizations as the world of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube remain unchartered for many baby boomers.
Secondly, communication is complex. The communication process will always be open to what Hackman and Johnson (Leadership, A communication perspective, 2009) have identified as, “the negotiation of shared interpretations and understandings”. Freedom, responsibility and dialogue will inevitably pave the way for more effective communication methods in the midst of the current context of communication complexity. Communication continues to be a multifaceted and multidimensional journey requiring openness, honesty, reflection and discernment.
Thirdly, communication is a process. As leaders and followers seek to communicate in this ‘new world at work’, we would do well to remember that our context is a global one, which is submerged in a chaotic state of change. Our context requires a dynamic communication process of engagement. As organizations embrace these changes, our communication methods, and strategies must at least attempt to evolve with our new emerging world. In this regards, traditional communication models and practices are up for grab, and dialogue, discussion, information sharing, open communication, listening, question asking, discernment, the leader as communication champion and the Web 2.0 world of the internet, twitter, blogging, YouTube, face book and email are destined to become our new communication foundation stones and buzz words, if they are not already.
Lastly, it is impossible to ‘un-communicate.’ Senders and receivers of the messages that inform our organizational existence would do well to remember that our communication messages leave a permanent mark. We can always apologize for our inappropriate communication, we can always change inappropriate communication styles and methods, but we cannot erase the message or the consequences in the moment. Add to this reality the facts that, as technology advances, organizations are leaving a footprint in cyberspace that can be near impossible to erase. In this sense, we can never un-communicate.
Leadership Communication = Human Communication
What then is the role of leadership with regards to communicating within a new world at work? In his book “Leadership for the twenty-first century”, Joseph Rost found that there were 221 published definitions of leadership between 1900 – 1990. Within this maze of leadership definitions how does it become possible to define the role of leadership within the communication process? Our starting point must be to create a common definition for leadership. Although the following definition is by no means exhaustive, it attempts to provide a framework against which we can define the communication process for leaders of organizations. In his research Rost identified four definitive leadership themes, namely:
• Leadership is about who you are. This perspective defines leadership according to commonly held leadership attributes or leadership character traits.
• Leadership is about how you act. This perspective defines leadership according to the manner in which leaders influence people, behaviour, culture and change.
• Leadership is about what you do. This perspective defines leadership according to what the organization accomplishes under the leader’s influence.
• Leadership is about how you work with others. This perspective defines leadership according to the leader’s ability to collaborate.
Based upon the above leadership definition framework, the following communication based definition of leadership is suggested:”Leadership is human communication, which modifies the attitudes and behaviours of others in order to meet shared group goals and needs”. Within the realms of communication and a new world of work, a leader is therefore grounded in the belief and conviction that communication is essential in creating buy in and commitment from followers towards accomplishing the vision and goals of the organization [that is, it is purpose directed]. In this sense a leader becomes a communication guardian. A communication guardian creates an open communication climate, by actively listening, discerning messages, facilitating strategic conversations, adapting to new communication trends and movements that ultimately move the organization towards its stated goals and purpose. Within a new world at work, open communication means sharing “all types of information throughout the organization, especially across functional and hierarchical boundaries” (Daft, 2008, p. 264) by means of a multi –dimensional communication strategy, which includes sharing through rich communication channels, using narrative, as well as allowing technological advancements to inform our communication strategy:
• Rich communication strategies utilises communication channels that allow for the maximum amounts of message transfer and feedback from senders and receivers during the communication process. Traditionally the richest communication channel has been face to face dialogue. In the new world of work that we find ourselves emerging into, this too is up for negotiation.
• Narrative makes use of storytelling and metaphors within the communication process. Narrative communication enables leaders to connect on both an intellectual, as well as on an emotional level, in ways in which other forms of communication cannot.
• Technological Advancement refers to the use of new communication methods available to us via the internet, the information highway and technology. In this regard leaders must look at creative ways in which email, twitter, social utilities and blogs can become communication rich channels.
Communication Evaluation = openness + questioning + listening + discernment + dialogue + discussion
As leaders begin the journey of engaging with communication in a new world at work, openness, questioning, listening and discernment, and dialogue are critical land marks on the journey. An open communication climate is critical for leadership communication, and is characterised by both trust and a willingness to communicate relevant important information across boundaries, hierarchies, traditional communication flow channels and methods.
Peter Drucker once said that, the leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. Great leaders are prepared to engage with their followers by active questioning, which promotes both follower involvement and organizational learning.
Listening is the ability of leaders to receive encoded messages from their followers, and to interpret the messages intended meaning in a dignified and constructive manner. Discernment is defined as the listening in which a leader detects unarticulated messages hidden below the surface of the spoken interaction.
Dialogue is the process of both transferring and listening to messages in the pursuit or exploration of common ground in the hope of creating a shared worldview and purpose.
In evaluation leadership communication effectiveness within a new world at work, the above communication components provide a framework against which leaders and followers can evaluate and inform current communication styles, strategies and methods.
Leadership Communication + a Global Village
We are living in a global village. In this global village, the world has become a smaller place. The free flow of information across cyberspace has radically redefined the village we now live in. Cultures, languages, values and generations are continually colliding to present us with “terra incognita” – unknown territory.
The very organizations that we inhabit have become our new world, which need to be explored, chartered, pioneered and discovered. Within this new world, traditional leadership communication theories are up for grabs. Organizational leaders have to adapt their communication styles to a world that is now multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-dimensional. Within this brave new world, the only constant is change, and rapid change at that. Our new world communication styles must become easily assessable to different cultures, languages and generation, whilst still maintaining the integrity of the messages we speak.
Our traditional communication platforms are being consumed by a wave of technology that both hinders and helps the communication process. This brave new world requires a generation of leaders that are prepared to learn and to listen, whilst breaking down institutional communication models that no longer serve the interest of the organizations that they lead. It is a journey that will require courage and bravery as we embark on a post recession journey towards discovering new insights into how our new world at work will communicate, wants to communicate and longs to communicate. The challenge before us, in the words of Captain J.T. Kirk of the Star ship Enterprise is relatively clear, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
© 2010, Darren Davies, Intergity Blue Consulting
Darren Davies is a friend and strategic thinking ally of TomorowToday. He is the founder of Integrity Blue Consulting, and currently describes his role as Director of Playground Activities. He is an organizational development specialist, playing in the fields of leadership, strategy, development and implementation