There are many ‘single points of failure’ in internal communication practice, which have the potential to stop us in our tracks and render what we do ineffective. Leaders can be one of them, but properly defining and understanding a SPOF in internal communication is the key to overcoming it.
‘A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. SPOFs are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system.’ Source Wikipedia – Single point of failure
In recent months there have been several IC related research reports and a book published which have made me reflect on what really stops internal communicators having an impact inside organisations.
We can characterise these blockers as ‘single points of failure’ and there are many SPOFs in internal communication practice, which have the potential to stop us in our tracks and render what we do ineffective.
Let’s call out a SPOF which is relevant to all of us. Leaders, and in particular senior leaders. Now, in my view, we have an unhealthy obsession in internal communication with this bunch, and we need to be far more pragmatic in how we deal with them and use them in internal communication.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to work with some brilliant leaders, who have been excellent communicators. Then there have been others who have been hopeless at it, and frankly, stopped me doing my job properly and also had a negative impact on the organisation. Like the rest of us, I think leaders fall into three camps, those who have natural and latent communications ability, those who can be taught (a job for us) and those who are communicatively incompetent and can’t or won’t acknowledge their failings.
Leaders are influential….but….
There is no denying that leaders are highly influential communicators in organisations, when they get it right.
A report by Karian and Box published in January 2021, based on research including 872,000 employees, revealed that 2 in 5 employees said they saw or heard from senior leaders less often than once a month. This is the tipping point, below which employee engagement begins to fall dramatically. If you didn’t see the Karian and Box report when it was published (somehow, I missed it entirely!), do take a look. I think it’s an insightful and useful piece of work because it’s based on the views of employees, which complements some of the other regular industry reports based on the views of internal communicators. I think having both perspectives gives us a more rounded view of IC practice and our current impact.
A more recent report which also demonstrated the impact of leadership communication, but this time in the context of employee listening, was from the excellent Employee Listening Project being run by Dr Kevin Ruck, Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais. In their third Who’s Listening report a key finding is that leaders are more critical than line managers in creating organisations that get the most out of employee listening. This is important in the context of another finding, that listening drives organisational performance, with the report containing some statistically significant evidence that listening to employees is most strongly associated with generating ideas to improve how people work and managing change effectively.
Despite all of this, in practice and the actual circumstances of the organisations we work in, sometimes we need to acknowledge that some leaders are SPOFs and carefully manage their role in communication activities, or in extreme cases exclude them from it altogether in the spirit of damage limitation.
I’ve written before that there are more ways for internal communicators to foster influential relationships and create impactful communication, beyond relying on interactions with leaders. We don’t need that elusive seat at the boardroom table, or to always rely on leaders as communicators to get things done. They are a part of the communications mix, not the sole channel, which is why I sometimes get frustrated with the dominance of the discussion in our industry about leadership communication, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
To quote Wikipedia again ‘Systems can be made robust by adding redundancy in all potential SPOFs. Redundancy can be achieved at various levels.’
In other words, and in the context of internal communication, we need to have a healthy and meaningful channel mix which is not overly reliant on one thing.
How to spot a SPOF
Back to those SPOFs. There are many others in organisations which stop us doing our jobs effectively. Some would cite ‘line managers’ (another slightly obsessional topic for us), awful technology, or even a complete lack of definition and understanding about what internal communication is actually for in the organisation.
Whatever the SPOF is, generalising its definition is unhelpful in finding a solution. We need to clearly understand why it is a SPOF and what we can do about it.
Earlier this week I attended an excellent session with Jenni Field of Redefining Comms. Jenni has recently had her first book published, Influential Internal Communication, including ‘The Field Model’ which can be used to ‘Understand, Diagnose and Fix’ issues.
I thought the model was very relatable and transferrable to all kinds of situational analysis and it reminded me that to properly fix a problem (or identify a SPOF) you really need to understand it before implementing a solution.
I think that sometimes internal communicators are railroaded by stakeholders (including leaders) into remedies for problems in organisations when there is a complete lack of understanding about why the problem exists in the first place.
How many times as an internal communicator, in a discussion about a problem, have you heard something along the lines of ‘we need to fix this, or join it up, with the communications’ or ‘we just need more communication around here’.
Is more and more communication, that is not grounded in understanding and planning, ever really an effective solution?