Friday, March 26, 2010

Total Quality Communication to Unlock the Communicator(s) Inside

We can learn a lot in school communications from the concept of Total Quality Management. Sweating the small stuff was all the rage as part of the TQM movement a few decades ago. The basic theory was that if you did minute details well, the total experience or product would be excellent. Now sweating the small stuff is somewhat passé as we want to make everyone a “big picture” person. However, too often our failure to communicate at the individual employee level is the small stuff that trips us up.

When all is said and done, most of the thorniest problems I’ve encountered in my 35-year career in public school PR occurred because of poor communication. That isn’t to diminish the tragic impact of the school shootings, earthquakes, bus accidents, and other biblical acts of God and Mother Nature that I’ve had to deal with. They take their toll and leave deep scars for sure. But many of the high profile conflicts and controversies that have become the all-too-prevalent hallmark of public education policy setting and operations usually stem from a breakdown in communication.

Drilling down to the lowest levels in an organization, poor communication is often the root of our problems and the reason for our undoing. Our education “system” somehow develops a reputation for bad communication, but most of the people in the system are left blameless. How can that be? Systems don’t communicate, people do!

Rigid insistence on ideology, pedagogy, pathology, terminology and all the other “ologies” gets in the way of honest respectful two-way communication. It can strip employees, parents, community activists, and interest groups of their ability to listen strategically and openly to other viewpoints. Just reference the sour grapes, venomous backlash to the federal health care legislation, or the labor union taking a vote of no confidence in a superintendent just because they can’t get their way at the bargaining table, or the office staff sandbagging and demonizing a manager who’s trying to change procedures and assignments?

Why is it that we tolerate and revert to being so disagreeable just because we disagree? Because people are not held accountable for their lousy communication practices! And, people think they know how to communicate well and they often don’t!

Two observations that illustrate this point:

Everyone is an expert on what we do
For some reason, conventional wisdom maintains that everyone springs from the womb fully capable and equipped to communicate verbally, non-verbally, and in writing. That simply is not the case. Some of the worst communicators I’ve brushed up against truly believe they communicate quite well. For example, ever had someone look at you and say, “What’s wrong?” You think you’re fine, but your body language is screaming that you’re not! Quality communication is part science, a dash of art, with whole lot of experience and technique thrown in. Quality communication is a learned skill, not an innate attribute in every individual.

The impact on school communication professionals of this misplaced belief is that everyone thinks they can do our job (maybe even better than us). For example, ever send out a newsletter to a committee for review and comment? You’ll quickly find that while most actors really want to be directors, most educators desperately want to be editors. They “grade” our work as if they are the premier experts and sometimes their edits are wrong!

Communication always seems to be somebody else’s responsibility or only one person’s responsibility
Typically in the communication audits I conduct for school districts people complain that the system doesn’t communicate to them. They never admit that they, in fact, are the system and they have some culpability if the “system” fails to communicate. About 85 cents out of every educational dollar these days is spent on a human being. Employees complain that problems stem from “You didn’t communicate well with me!” Rarely do they admit, “I didn’t take the time to read the materials you sent, listen to your voice mail, read my emails thoroughly, or pay attention in the meeting!”

If a school district is wise enough to employ a professional chief communicator then all too often “communication” becomes their job alone and others feel entitled to abrogate and delegate any personal accountability or responsibility for communicating about what they are doing. “Oh, that’s not my job, that’s hers.” It is an easy out to simply sweep all of the organization’s communication chores into a stinking pile and leave it at the office door of the school PR person.

Here are some suggestions to develop a communicating culture in your schools:

(1) Build communication into decision-making
Do you have meetings? Sure you do; maybe even too many meetings. How about this: require that before you move on to the next agenda item in each meeting you have the people in the room spend five minutes answering this question:

“How are we going to communicate about what we just decided or discussed?”

It’s not enough to make decisions if people don’t know about them. Who better to talk about how best to reach stakeholders with the subject matter than the people in the room discussing that subject matter? That’s a communication tool that doesn’t cost a dime to implement, but it can yield powerful results.

(2) Evaluate and reward communication performance
Acceptable communication skills should be a line item in every employee’s written job description. We should evaluate employees not just on their ability to do their job, but on how well they communicate while they’re doing their job.

(3) Model the behaviors and values we expect in others
Media guru Roger Ailes once advised Ronald Reagan, “Remember Mr. President, you are the message.” Employees inside our public schools can be our best and worst messengers because they transmit messages about our competency as an organization to serve people, solve problems, and deliver a quality educational product. Leaders can unlock the communication potential within their organizations if they have a tireless insistence on quality communication, interaction and relationships at every level by every individual — especially in themselves!

(4) When you have a terrible soloist, get a bigger choir!
Frequently, we are ruled by the loudest voice in the room, the overbearing bully who makes us uncomfortable, or the last person we talk to. When these negative voices dominate the debate it’s time to engage more rational voices to drown them out. The bigger the choir the less one bad singer makes our group sound off key. By emphasizing quality communication in every other employee, the miscommunicating employee can learn by example. Making quality communication matter protects your organization from a negativity virus that can be spread by a single individual to ruin your organization’s communication health.

Whether you sweep the place out at night or you’re the CEO you need to see yourself as a total quality communicator. Sweat the small stuff in communication and the big stuff might just take care of itself!

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