IC Beyond welcomes guest writer Lindsay Uittenbogaard
Nothing has changed about ‘communication’. It’s a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior (Merriam Webster). William Isaac’s book ‘Dialogue – The Art of Thinking Together’ from 1999 says it all.
Yet Internal Communications (IC) has been pushed down the track of scaling across time and distance, driven by the imperative to explain the strategy, clearly and quickly. Mass media channels inside and out seemingly enabled it all. Newsletters, town halls, cascade processes, the Intranet, and more recently Enterprise Social Media: PR-style campaigns seemingly were the answer.
We’ve come a long way since then, but nothing has overtaken the dominating channel-based approach. Conversation cafés, line-manager training, integration with external comms, storytelling: arguably these all sit in the shadow of top-down communications, which is here to stay. Mass-media channels serve to reinforce the brand, help create belonging, clarify the broader context. So while channels are an essential part of the communications backdrop, they don’t share meaning (BECAUSE IT’S MOSTLY ONE WAY) and the content isn’t that relevant (BECAUSE IT HAS TO BE GENERIC).
Now the world is more connected, more complicated. Organizations need to be more competitive, more adaptive. And employees are more diverse, more demanding. The imperative for leaders to ensure engagement and alignment to the strategy is even stronger and many of their challenges relate to communications.
No wonder IC professionals are begging to add the value they know is needed. But frustratingly, they’re still sitting in a parking lot called Top Down Communications, watching colleagues from other disciplines all dressed up, walking the red carpet into the big party.
So let’s take it RIGHT BACK.
Every decision we make and every action we take is based on our unique mental model of the world and our place in it. Mental models are made up of layers upon layers of information, lessons learned, pressures, opinions, preferences, biases, motivations, fears, habits, influences, personality, and more. All these layers sit together in an intricate, complicated infrastructure of pathways upon which our inner logic travels. We didn’t evolve with a map of these pathways, it just worked out this way as we evolved to survive and thrive.
Many parts of the paths in our brain can change by being upgraded, replaced, or redirected. Indeed, our mental models undergo constant evolution, triggered by new signals from the outside world and our own physiology. This can happen quickly and painlessly and shows up with different interpretations, responses, and reactions.
For the most part we are unaware of all this as it runs like an operating system. The interface to our conscious mind only shows the output: responses and reactions.
In an organizational setting, the mental model of an employee would include why they’re there to start with, what the company brand tells them, what their contract means, who they’re working with, what their role is and why, what influence they think they have and how that role is intended to add value, how the work should be carried out and under what circumstances, etc.
Alignment to build better shared mental models
People build better shared mental models using language to share meaning. This is otherwise known as an alignment process. Much of what goes on inside our deep and complex mental models doesn’t really matter. What is important is how compatible (the relevant parts of) our mental model can be alongside the people we collaborate with, and how much of a growth mindset we have when it comes to finding and acting on that compatibility, when it comes to delivering together.
Compatible in the sense that two parties
- agree to a decision even though one party would have preferred a different choice
- start out with different ideas and combine them to form a better one
- come to an understanding about how to better collaborate.
Therefore, alignment doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, or people thinking the same thing. For example, if people have a strong personal connection to their goals, they are more committed than those who do not. People working in the same team don’t need to have the same personal connection to have shared commitment, they just need to have a connection that drives their own commitment.
The link between cognition and behaviour
And here’s a crucial twist. Alignment isn’t just about WHAT (cognition), it’s also about HOW (behaviours). Research in the social sciences shows us that there are three components of alignment:
- Social participation – how people interact, include and connect each other’s perspectives and ideas
- Shared cognition– how people understand the shared context together, including the purpose of the team and the organization
- Relevance to the individual – the purpose of the individual and how that relates to the work of the team.
In particular, Piet van den Bossche at Antwerp University (2010) looked at how learning behaviours help people develop better shared mental models, expressed within the following areas:
- psychological safety – a shared belief that the interpersonal risk taking will not carry negative consequence
- team cohesion – shared commitment to achieve shared goals
- group potency – the collective belief of team members that the group can be effective (confidence)
- interdependence – a) task related: reliability of interconnections between tasks; b) outcome related – team members’ personal benefits and costs depend on goal achievement.
In other words, when a group of people with achievable shared goals can build trust, commitment, confidence, and interdependence they are more likely to become aligned and succeed together.
The effect of these behaviours combined manifest in Team Learning Behaviours. These allow, for example, constructive conflict to occur whereby divergent views can be either negotiated to common ground or become more readily accepted.
To be clear: shared mental models are relevant where there is a shared context: on an actionable level with teams, and on the strategic level, in divisions / functions / whole organizations. This includes having compatible perspectives on their shared challenges (WHAT) and having compatible perspectives on the behaviours they need to use to deliver together (HOW).
So where does that leave Internal Communications?
The definition of IC
All the while channels were raging like content machines inside large organizations, a whole heap of practices and disciplines were picking up pace alongside. Learning & development, organizational effectiveness, agility, leadership coaching … and what they’ve all got in common is ‘people and performance’.
What IC does exclusively is shape messages, curate content and create context. Let’s build on that with more integration.
The All New Professional Communicator doesn’t own the content, it broadens out into a myriad of roles to further business objectives:
- ROLE 1: the high-level project manager, diagnosing need, orchestrating the ‘people and performance’ support response across a multitude of disciplines as appropriate
- ROLE 2: the change communication professional (as is already apparent)
- ROLE 3: the management support communicator – coaching, facilitating, delivering relevant comms support for leaders and teams
- ROLE 4: the proper channel management communicator, who ensures a seamless reflection of strategy intention and implementation – without going nuts on too much stuff in the process.
Unless IC professionals want to keep hold of a meta-label for putting up wallpaper (in reference to the traditional interpretation of the role), it’s time to redefine, to become deeply relevant to the business, and act as a tribe of outcome-oriented facilitators of performance through people, using real communications as a tool.
Lindsay Uittenbogaard began her career running small businesses before spending 15 years in communication leadership roles with multinational organisations in the energy, IT, and telecommunications industries. She has since used her experience and insights from research to create and drive the growth of an organizational alignment process called Mirror Mirror. It connects communications with effective implementation by aligning people to the strategy and with each other.
An IABC Accredited Business Communicator, Lindsay is also a certified member of the Reputation Institute and a published author in the Gower Handbook on Internal Communication 2008. She holds post-graduate diplomas in International Business Communication Management and Broadcast Journalism, and is certified by the CIPD.
COMMENTS FROM IC BEYOND
KEVIN Interesting piece. Lots to unpick. To a degree I think that internal comms has always been predominantly a one-way information process. This can be traced back to the roots of practice when newspaper editors moved into large organisations and called themselves ‘industrial editors’. Many in-house newspapers were simply mouthpieces for the senior manager perspective on the organisation. I remember challenging this in British Telecom in the mid 1980s when I suggested that more views from employees should be included in the internal magazine. I was told by the director of marketing that we shouldn’t ‘wash our dirty linen in public’. The increase in the channels used today has resulted in a proliferation of more one-way comms, just in different ways. However, I think this is gradually changing. Information is less formal and less journalistic than it was. And that’s a good thing.
Employees that I talked to in my PhD research overwhelmingly stated a yearning for more ‘human’ communication. We are also seeing more and better listening with pulse surveys and online forum discussions. This is clear from many accounts of internal comms during Covid-19. Indeed, in terms of roles, I would add ‘listening’ to the list. The question is how far will the gains in senior manager visibility, informal and empathetic communication and listening be held as part of accepted day to day practice in the future. If they are, then I see a very bright future for internal comms.
JANET: Such a thought-provoking piece. I love some of the ideas put forward. It feels like this could/should be expanded upon and become a whole book! For the past couple of years I have been surprised at how little the IC conversations have moved on and how the same challenges I encountered 15 years ago are still being discussed yet not resolved. The approach and thought process put forward here feels like an exciting jolt – we don’t need nudges, we need jolts and leaps and bravery.
My challenge would be what do we need to do to make the shift to perspectives and ideas such as this? Who do we need to influence? And are the right people in play and making a convincing case to those with influence about the opportunity IC truly represents?
What does it actually need for change to happen and the conversation to move on and opportunity to open up?
TRUDY: Thanks Lindsay – interesting piece. There is definitely something around the ‘definition of IC’ that is needed and that will set up changes needed to develop value.
Looking at this through the lens of mental models including behaviours and perspectives might be a positive way to make that shift towards some of the suggested new roles of the professional communicator.
Like everyone else, the hope is that we will see a definite progression towards the profession demonstrating and being recognised for its value. Maybe some of these suggestions here will get us started.
ADAM: I agree with Kevin, Janet and Trudy. Lindsay, this is a really interesting piece that’s worth expanding in all sorts of directions. Lots of really great nuggets here!
One that struck me in particular is your assertion that “alignment doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, or people thinking the same thing.” This is so true! I’ve always felt this intuitively and have tried to structure my own approach to internal communication based on that understanding, but it’s so nice to have it stated so clearly. I think there’s vast opportunity for IC professionals to advance that very notion when working with our partners across organizations, many of whom continue to operate in silos and are averse to ceding even an inch of ground.
I would love to see this theme and many of the others you highlight built out further!
LINDSAY: Very glad to see the positive responses – great questions! I must admit that just before I started Mirror Mirror, I felt I had to ‘turn my back’ on the world of employee communications because it seemed so disconnected from the direction I felt needed to be taken. Now I see that a balanced approach needs to include multiple directions. I just hope the ‘shared mental models’ theme will take hold through the use of alignment tools and processes that can be so powerful. And I have tons of content to write a book on all this but no time – if anyone’s interested in a collaboration? 🙂
MIKE: Collaboration will certainly be key. In expanding the understanding of what IC/Employee Communication is, it also expands the scope beyond many practitioners’ knowledge and skill sets to address. As it happens, this conversation is timely in that it rescopes the understanding of IC at a time when the pandemic is reshaping the tactical and practical toolkits away from things like large face-to-face events and towards more online and networked interventions. Drawing on the skills of colleagues – and outsiders – with the right understanding and insights could well be key to finding advantage in a distinctly different landscape.