How to Head Off Communication Breakdowns


How people and groups work together (or don’t) is just as important to organizational effectiveness as using the right strategy or being efficient at execution. But most managers and executives handle corporate interaction and communication in a very erratic way, which in turn can harm the results of the overall strategy.

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In order to avoid this outcome, managers and executives should incorporate interaction planning into their management approach. The planning needs to happen at three levels: individual, team, and organizational. Here’s an overview of what’s involved at each level:

Improving Your Individual Skills

An individual plan for improving interactions should include the following:

  • Does the individual understand the connection between interaction, strategy, and execution? Can he or she recognize good vs. poor interaction and communication?
  • What is the individual’s current style of interacting with others—passive, aggressive, defensive, etc.? Is he or she willing to give feedback? If no, does defensiveness stand in the way?
  • What are the individual’s strengths and weaknesses? What steps can the person take to make his or her interactions more effective?

A Team Interaction Plan

A plan for improving interaction for a team should include the following:

  • A team should ask fundamental questions such as, “What does success look like for us as a team?” (The goal is to identify a purpose that is directly relevant to the people on the team.)
  • Clearly define what the team will (or won’t) do in how they operate together.
  • Teams often take how they work together for granted, an attitude that can contribute to big interaction gaps. Collaboration needs to be proactive and the team needs to make sure what they are doing is helping them achieve the team purpose and goals. They should, for example, talk about the frequency, length, and content of their meetings, and decide if there are changes necessary that could make the team operate more effectively.
  • In order to galvanize a team and ensure that it capitalizes on individual strengths, there needs to be a discussion about the contribution that each person brings to the team. The discussion should be centered on who will be responsible for what tasks at the core of the team’s purpose—whether that is running a process, creating plans, designing a product or service, or solving problems.
  • Every group takes on a pattern of interaction based on the norms it adopts (consciously or unconsciously). Developing explicit ground rules increases the likelihood of the team operating as intended, because it provides a frame of reference to evaluate how meetings and interactions are going. Problems then can be more readily recognized and resolved.

The team needs to discuss how it will not only implement decisions, but continue learning and improving in each area. In light of that, the team member leading the discussion should ask:

  • How can we make sure we act in ways consistent with our principles?
  • What can we do with the team map to make sure we continue to emphasize strengths and manage weaknesses?
  • How will we reinforce our norms?

An Organizational Interaction Plan

When discussing interaction on an organizational level, include the following:

  • A discussion about how interaction practices can overcome cross-functional barriers (also known as “silo busting”)
  • How to add better organizational interaction to an existing initiative or new major project.
  • Team leaders should adopt best interaction practices with an eye toward “trickling down” those practices to their teams.

Plans for implementing organizational interaction should incorporate the kinds of tactics you would use for any other major initiative, such as:

  • Engaging team members and stakeholders
  • Educating anyone who will need to support or implement the plan
  • Conducting a (SWOT) analysis of the interaction dimension
  • Determining the critical issues that need to be addressed
  • Formulating action plans to address the issues
  • Reviewing practices for building a culture of continuous learning

Plans and Action

We all realize that a plan without action is just a dream, and that action without a plan is just chaos. But taking steps to improve organizational interaction will go more smoothly, and prove more effective, if you have a plan.

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