Welcome to week two of the "small business resolutions" series! Last week, we talked about seven simple tools that build a strong small business foundation. Like they did for me, those resources will help you look more professional to those you interact with, giving you a leg up on your competition and giving your customers and donors more confidence in you.
This week, let's address one of the biggest issues I've seen at nonprofits and social enterprises: poor internal communication. It's a proverbial elephant in the room, isn't it? We're often so focused on communicating with would-be customers and donors that we don't get our own houses in order. And, yet, everyone knows that it's a problem.
This behavior leads to all sorts of problems, like confusion, distrust, and frustration. In fact, I'm guessing that an example or two has already popped into your mind. We've probably all worked at (or lead—yikes!) organizations where the internal communication left a lot to be desired.
So, it's time to make a change. This is too important. After all, you'll only see more cracks and flaws as your organization grows. And think about it this way . . . your nonprofit or social enterprise has a cause that it's fighting for. It has a mission, a purpose, a problem to solve. So, why would you want to do great things externally while, internally, your employees are confused, mistrustful, and frustrated? That's not only counter to your mission, but will stunt your growth.
But here's the good news: it can be fixed. You can gain authority and trust at your organization through a healthy culture of communication, and I'll show you how.
The Effects of Poor Communication
I think there a couple of reasons why internal communication isn't addressed more frequently. First, it's hard to measure. You can't directly see a correlation to sales and donations, so it's shoved to the back burner until it's a real issue. Second, it's usually dictated from the top down, whether intentionally or unintentionally. So, if your organization's leaders aren't very good at communicating or have unhealthy communication habits, that's likely to dictate the culture. (And no one wants to confront the boss.)
Both of these instances can make creating a healthy culture of communication really difficult. However, good communication practices, habits, and systems can mean the difference between having internal support, cohesion, and cooperation—and not having it. With proper communication, your employees and teams will feel united. Without it, they'll be divided. Isn't that enough reason for a change?
Communication Establishes Trust
Think about your significant personal relationships. One of the commonalities between them is trust. And one of the reasons you trust each of these people is because they communicate with you. The same principles should apply at the office.
However, I usually see leaders taking two routes with internal communication. The first is that they withhold information. This may be because they don't feel like it's applicable to others, don't want to overwhelm them, or sadly, may use it as a control tactic. And the second route is where people save up information over time and then dump it all on employees all at once, which leads to overwhelm.
So, instead, make a point to communicate regularly. Proper and consistent communication shows that you value others by keeping them in the loop and respect the part they play at the organization. It shows that you want their involvement. In fact, the people in your office who are good at communicating are likely the ones who are the most trusted. We all trust those who demonstrate that they value us.
Communication Establishes Authority
Consider this: one person is the actual leader but communicates poorly with their team. Another person isn't in charge, but is great at acquiring information and distributing it to the team. Who would you go to if you had a question?
The second person may only have perceived authority, not actual authority, but it can be more powerful, can't it? If you're the leader, ask yourself honestly if you're also the perceived authority. If not, what can you do to change that? It likely has to do with your communication style. Be the person who has the information, shares it, and then takes the extra step to follow up when necessary. Your authority will skyrocket.
Create a Culture of Communication
If you don't create a culture of communication, one will be created for you. They can evolve naturally or intentionally. And if you're the leader of a team or entire organization, you can't afford to lose authority and trust to poor communication because it directly relates to the health, well-being, and growth of your organization.
Think in terms of both the "how" and the "when." How you'll communicate can include both in-person and online. You might consider regular staff meetings for face-to-face time. I believe these are best done in-person if everyone is local, but can also be done through platforms like Zoom and Skype if all or part of the team is virtual. Staff meetings don't have to be long, but are a great chance for everyone to hear about large initiatives, get caught up on other's activities, and weigh in on important topics.
You should also think about how your team or organization communicates online. Email is the go-to, of course, but some people work better in programs like Slack, Facebook Groups, or Google Sites. If you're going to be changing systems dramatically, it would be great to get feedback before selecting a new option. Likewise, make sure everyone is adequately trained. You can't blame a system or employees if no one properly showed them how to use it. Give this some time to get up and running, then evaluate and see if you should keep moving forward or try something new.
Lastly, communicate the "when." Outline for people when they'll hear from you. Will you have monthly in-person updates and weekly email updates? What works best for your organization? What will you try, and then adjust as needed?
Set intentional expectations regarding company communication, and remember to be consistent. Tell everyone what they can expect from you, and what they should do with the information. Then follow-up to make sure questions are answered and next steps are taken.
Depending on your situation and the size of your organization, it may take a while to get everything rolling. But you should start to see the difference that can be made when internal communication becomes consistent and intentional. Your employees will certainly notice a difference. And, as a result, you'll gain authority and trust at your organization.
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I'm Kristi Porter, and I started Signify to provide writing, consulting and strategy services to nonprofits and for-profit organizations with a social mission, primarily through copywriting, marketing, and business communications. I believe that cause-focused organizations like yours are the future of business. You're proof that companies can both make money and do good. And I'm here to help you get noticed and grow. When you succeed, we all win.