July 18, 2015

Teams and Communication

“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

Stephen R. Covey

Telling it like it is

Honest communication may sometimes be painful but leads to greater effectiveness in the long run

When there are relationship or performance problems in working teams, members will often single out communication as the root cause—almost as if communication was some disembodied force (for good or evil) over which they have no control.


Symptoms such as dissatisfaction with the perceived blunt style of a top-down leader or the lack of information sharing on a project are attributed to this ‘ungovernable’ force rather that to the plain fact that communication policy in the team or organisation is unheeded, ineffective, misunderstood or simply non-existent.

Communication is a broad term with a range of context-specific definitions. So, it is important that there is a common understanding of what the concept actually means and how it is understood by each team member both the context of what they are attempting to achieve and in advance of developing and adopting a communication policy and procedures.

In rescue teams involved in life or death situations, where precise and effective communication is critical, operating procedures tend to highlight the need for:

  • Standard terminology when communicating information.
  • Requesting and providing clarification when needed.
  • Ensuring statements are direct and unambiguous.
  • Informing the appropriate individuals when the mission or plans change.
  • Communicating all information needed by those external to the team.
  • Using nonverbal communication appropriately.
  • Using proper order when communicating information.

Honest Communication

Many teams do develop appropriate means for communication similar to those described above. However, they can fail to consider the degree to which team members feel that communication is honest.

Honest communication is where team members:

  • feel free to say what they think;
  • ‘tell it like it is’;
  • believe they are being listened to and heeded;
  • are not punished for reporting bad news and
  • have regular forums for open information exchange.

Open and honest communication about what team members think and feel is critical. If team members do not fully believe that their colleagues are openly and honestly ‘telling it like it is’, then relationships and effectiveness can be easily undermined. Meanwhile uncertainty and suspicion will impact on the levels of trust within the team and are highly likely to result in:

  • a failure to effectively integrate and coordinate team tasks;
  • the formation of cliques characterised by sniping and blaming behaviours;
  • people only telling each other what they think others want to hear;
  • an increasing tendency to avoid challenging discussion that relate to performance issues or to address the conflicts naturally occurring in any team;
  • feelings of being isolated or ignored and
  • a drop in levels of commitment and effort.

The leader has a significant role to play in supporting the development of honest communication within their teams and needs to recognise that communication is not just about sharing facts and information. For honesty to prevail, team members need to trust each other implicitly and establish policies and practices to support honest communication.

When teams form initially, communication may be guarded and reticent. Members will be testing the parameters, observing the operating styles and adhering to the communication norms being established consciously or unconsciously by the leader or informal leaders.

This is the ideal time for leaders to role model open and honest communication.

As the team matures and develops, levels of trust will change. If the team rewards honest communication over time, members will learn that this is a valued element of the team’s culture. If honesty is not encouraged or if it is punished, then team members will not take the risk of being open and honest.

The traditional intact team whose members meet face-to-face and communicate with ease is not as prevalent as it once was. ‘Non-traditional’ team structures such as:

  • virtual teams dependent on electronic modes of communication,
  • highly diverse teams with different cultures and languages or
  • teaming work groups [TWGs] with ever-changing membership,

offer new challenges for the team leaders seeking to implement communication procedures. Team leaders who can rise to these challenges will be in a far greater position to optimise their team’s effectiveness than those who don’t.

Communication within teams is essential for effectiveness. However, it is not simply the communication styles or the mode of communication, the frequency or indeed the content that team leaders should concern themselves with but the degree of honesty.

 If people are open and honest then they can truthfully say that meetings are ineffective or effective, that there is too much reliance on e-mail or not, that there are not enough one-to-one conversations or too many. Team leaders need to encourage from the outset the confidence in team members to speak their minds and be honest.

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