Beware the new IT virus: institutionalised thoughtlessness


Nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved in isolation. Communication and collaboration are behind mankind’s greatest endeavours, from mapping the human genome to landing on the moon. So, it’s surprising to me that communication remains a real challenge even among some of the world’s biggest businesses.

This issue is more prevalent than you might think. As a leader of a number of businesses and a consultant to a broad range of organisations, I have yet to find a company that doesn't think its communication could be improved – from the board down, between internal divisions and even between individual employees.

Organisations of every size try to rectify this perceived communication gap by spending huge amounts of time and cash on internal programmes. They define their mission and goals, host workshops to determine their business’s core values and announce these at wonderfully uplifting and expensive staff events. They will ask for feedback and teams will respond by saying that communication must improve or that managers should be more appreciative of their people.

Management take this feedback, revamp appraisal systems and link them to performance targets so every individual knows what their contribution should be. And they pledge to improve lines of communication across the business.

Then, having invested all this time and energy in creating vision documents, strategic plans, appraisal systems and engagement programmes, management will fail to achieve the results they were hoping for. And they wonder why.

I deem this leadership malaise “institutionalised thoughtlessness” (IT). This manifests itself when management practices, many of which are sound in theory, are introduced without management exhibiting the leadership qualities needed to bring people together effectively. This is where good leadership counts – and where it can give an organisation a competitive advantage.

I believe the inertia caused by IT can only be avoided by setting the right tone at the top of an organisation. Leaders need to be alive to the four dangers that combine to allow IT to develop:

1. Growth

As organisations grow they take on more people. And with more people, the company culture changes. A greater central overhead in HR, marketing and business processes brings new systems, which come to the fore. This can and will change the dynamic within a business. It will generate both elation and depression in people working through the disruption that’s brought about – it’s the classic change curve.

However, leaders need to be aware that change disrupts different levels within organisations at different times. When the board feels it has travelled through the emotions of making a change and is out on the other side, the changes may only just be impacting people on the ground who have yet to experience the roller coaster ride.

If company leaders don’t manage this in the right way it will impact upon the team’s attention to customer service and product excellence. In a world of greater regulation – both external and internal to the organisation itself – there is inevitably less time to focus on clients. I hear this a lot from professional services clients, but it affects all businesses.

2. Speed

As my fellow Frameworkers know, I document postal history (OK – I am a stamp collector!).

The earliest piece in my collection is a commercial letter written in 1586, sent between Antwerp and London (which can be seen at the bottom of this post). It is written in Italian and deals with the movement of goods between two international traders of the day. The letter took 13 days to reach its recipient back then!

The message is full and detailed. It had to be. It would be nearly impossible to correct mistakes if it took 13 days to communicate between people.

Today, we have the luxury of speed. Emails and texts are sent in seconds. We send an email and expect a response immediately.

This has two effects. Firstly, because we can correct things quickly (although in my experience we very rarely do) we tend not to be as precise in our language as we ought to be. We don’t think about the effect on the recipient of our poorly-crafted missive. Secondly, because we expect instant responses we tend not to take responsibility for actions ourselves but wait for responses and do nothing until or unless we hear back. When it took 13 days to give and receive a message, trusted individuals were required to act on their own initiative to a much greater extent than today and consequently took far greater responsibility for their actions.

3. Language

With speed and the stress associated with continual change, we are in danger of delivering our messages using inappropriate or poorly-chosen language.

Words matter. Just ask Gerald Ratner.

Great politicians always understand the value of rhetoric – something no longer taught in schools. But it is important in everyday business life as well.

Not only do leaders need to choose the right words, they must deliver them with honesty and forthrightness. They must engender trust. A leader’s motives must be clear and honest for their people to take on board their rhetoric and deal with change programmes. Non-verbal communication (e.g. body language) is vital here.

4. Delivery

This brings us to the last danger: how words are delivered. Great language can be destroyed by inappropriate delivery.

We know some things are better said face to face. Saying sorry may be better done in person than by email. Leaders need to choose their method of delivery with care. I have seen inappropriate, poorly-worded emails or internal memos become the source of anger, confusion and derision.

The leadership challenge

These dangers may seem obvious but it’s not always easy to get internal communication right.

This is a leadership responsibility. A responsibility to build appropriate relationships. But so much of what I see is not rooted in building solid relationships. I don't always see leadership in the true sense, rather management in a “painting by numbers” way. It’s “pretend” leadership. By that I mean management that follows a set path that is assumed will produce results when in fact things very rarely happen that way.

But good leadership and good communication can make a business thrive. It’s what drives good customer service. It’s the role of leadership to integrate that into an organisation in a consistent, sustained way.

I’m reminded of an old African proverb:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

A commercial letter written in 1586, sent between Antwerp and London.

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