Communication, Crisis and Culture

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“The time has come,’ the Walrus said, To talk of many things”

Lewis Carroll (1871) “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Through the Looking Glass.

In my previous two articles: ‪Managing and Leading Staff Through A Pandemic (May 2020) and ‪Crisis Leadership (April 2020) the importance of a strong, healthy, dynamic organizational culture was shown to be key to the success of any organization, navigating the perilous waters of the COVID-19 pandemic. The extent to which the leadership group of the organization, pre-pandemic, has been proactive in building an organization that has a strong and healthy culture, one that is not toxic but rather life-giving to its members, will largely determine how onboard the team is as you journey through this crisis. The good news is it is never too late to turn the corner and start leading proactively and positively.

At the heart of all healthy relationships is a sound, robust, approach to communication. For the leadership group, it is essential to understand that where the communication impacts positively or negatively on key areas of risk to the organization or pertains to the strategic plan of the organization, then it should be regarded as a strategic component of the organization. To achieve this a simple pneumonic, COMMS, can be useful.

Effective Communication requires:

Clarity of the message.

Objective and outcome required of the message.

Message, the quality of the message and the content of the message.

Medium used, often multiple types of medium to maximize the message’s impact.

Stakeholders access as appropriate to the message.

It is important for the leaders looking to harness ‘The Communication Process’ to understand what is involved.

Ideally, the process should start out with a clear identification as to who the audience(s) are. The message is constructed with them in mind. Getting this part right from the outset is critical, as it will also dictate how many communication channels you will have operating simultaneously. Most forms of communication requires the message being coded, typically into a common language such as English. This might seem obvious, but the message could be in another code. Think of the military’s use of Morse Code or Semaphore. These are also systems of code understood by the receiver.

So, the sender encodes the message. The message is sent through a selection of appropriate channels. You want to ensure that you maximize the likelihood of the message being received and understood. Think of that important message sent to all staff by the CEO only to have people complain they never got it. When challenged with the obvious: “we sent it to all staff by email last week,” will often lead to the outcry: “I dont do email!” leaving the leaders bewildered. As a side note, some organizations have incorporated into their Communications Policy that email is an official means of communication and staff have a professional responsibility to regularly check their email, including the Junk or Spam folder. That’s not to say that other means of communication couldn’t also be used. The office memo, circulated and signed for in hard copy still has a place, as does the follow-up phone call and even some forms of social media. This is why knowing the audience is critical to communications success.

Once received, the message is decoded and if required a reply is sent, using this same communication process. This may take the form of feedback that tells the original sender that the message was received and understood. Noise is the greatest enemy to good, effective communication. Noise can be physical noise that makes a phone call hard to hear or static in the phone line. More often noise takes the form of people in the organization inserting themselves between the sender and the receiver to either intercept, change or disrupt the message. The person who forwards the message from the CEO that has already been sent by the CEO to the whole organization with anything more than ‘For Your Information and Attention’ is most likely putting forward under the guise of a summary, their interpretation of what the CEO is saying. The danger in doing a summary of someone else’s message is that people may think they don’t need to read the actual message now that they have read the summary. This leads to confusion, including role confusion and a clearly articulated message and associated details gets scrambled in the process. This is when the intended recipient comes back with statements such as “why don’t they just tell us what’s going on?” This is one reason why a single medium is often ineffective. It is also why a lot of informal communication, phone calls, water cooler chats and the like, that reinforce and / or fills out the detail with more colour, is important to the process. The complimentary nature of the formal and informal communication systems of an organization are often taken for granted. The formal communication effectively becomes the ‘official record’ and the informal more like the engine room driving the message home.                                                                                                                                                                                         


Image Used Under Creative Commons Licence Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) | Communication Process. Authored by: Freedom Learning Group. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC BY: Attribution

In times of crisis, it is essential that leaders, especially leaders of Government and heads of Government Agencies need to be crystal clear about the message and the message needs to engender hope.


How does effective communication build organizational culture?

At the heart of any culture typically, is a shared vision, beliefs and values often bounded by common geographical localities and a shared language. The purpose therefore of effective communication is to build up and strengthen these core components of an organization’s culture. Effective communication typically involves sharing critical thinking and understanding, about the activities of the organization and how it is achieving its stated goals and objectives. Done well this means that effective communication is crucial in developing high levels of trust in the organization. It is at the heart of good strategic planning and is the key to leaders allowing their team to see the humanity that lies within. The nature of communications within the organization, will more often than not be revealing of how high the levels of trust are across the organization and the extent to which Psychological Safety is well catered for. This was captured well by Harvard Business School Professor Amy. C. Edmondson in her excellent work The Fearless Organization”.

 “The concept (Psychological Safety) refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.”

Edmondson, Amy C.(2019). The fearless organization : creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (p.25). 

This connects well to my previous two articles which increasingly focused on the importance of staff still having a sense of belonging and connection back to their team, their colleagues, the leadership and ultimately the vision and mission of the organization. When people are working from home, this connection can be weakened. Weekly online meetings via platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom can help with this but only if conducted properly. If the weekly meeting is nothing more than an infomercial that could have been in an email or phone call, then the opportunity to bring people in from the coldness that working in isolation can bring, may well have gone missing and the opportunity to build bonds of trust evaporated. 

Increasingly researchers are seeing the importance of collective trust to the culture of the organization and the organization’s performance. One example of this is the work of Stephen. M. R. Covey and his excellent book “Smart Trust,” Covey makes the astute observation that it is indeed the hallmark of great leaders to lead with trust. 

“In order to increase influence and grow trust in a team, an organization, a community, a family, or a relationship, someone has to take the first step. That’s what leaders do. They go first. They lead out in extending trust. In fact, the first job of a leader is to inspire trust, and the second is to extend it. This is true whether a person has a formal leadership role, such as CEO, manager, team leader, or parent, or an informal role of influence, such as work associate, marriage partner, or friend.”

Covey, Stephen. M. R., Link, Greg., Merrill, Rebecca, R. (2012). Smart trust: Creating prosperity, energy and joy in a low-trust world (eBook). London: Simon & Schuster. (p.192). 

In truth, whilst communication is meant to be a two-way street, it takes at least one person, often a leader, to show leadership, to influence the narrative by taking the lead in communication. That process fundamentally requires trust on the part of the team they lead. Trust in what the leader is saying and trust that the process of communication is indeed open, didactic, and interactive. 

Another author and researcher in this area of Communication and Trust is Professor Paul. J. Zak (founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University). In 2017 Professor Zak in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Neuroscience of Trust,” explored and shared some groundbreaking research drawing on neuroscience to make the connection between trust and organizational performance. 

“In its 2016 global CEO survey, PwC reported that 55% of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth. But most have done little to increase trust, mainly because they aren’t sure where to start.” 

“My team also found that those working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, and felt 66% closer to their colleagues. And a high-trust culture improves how people treat one another and themselves. Compared with employees at low-trust organizations, the high-trust folks had 11% more empathy for their workmates, depersonalized them 41% less often, and experienced 40% less burnout from their work. They felt a greater sense of accomplishment, as well—41% more. Again, this analysis supports the findings from our qualitative and scientific studies. But one new—and surprising—thing we learned is that high-trust companies pay more. Employees earn an additional $6,450 a year, or 17% more, at companies in the highest quartile of trust, compared with those in the lowest quartile. The only way this can occur in a competitive labor market is if employees in high-trust companies are more productive and innovative.”

Zak. Paul. J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. In Harvard Business Review January-February 2017. 

The statistics really talk for themselves. The link is clear, ‘High Trust’ companies are typically ‘High Performing’ and the basis of this, how this is created, is through a carefully crafted, well thought-out communications strategy that targets the audience appropriately and allows them the ability to give feedback, ideas, and suggestions. How else do you explain why they are 70% more aligned with their companiespurpose?”  What is significant in this research is the establishment of the connection between a neurochemical, Oxytocin, which signals trust and empathy, leading to the creation of trust and the building of a high trust, high-performance organization. 

“Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. My research team has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation.”

Zak. Paul. J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. In Harvard Business Review January-February 2017. 

Professor Zak thankfully gives insight as to how leaders of organizations, large and small, Government and non-Government, can use to create trust and dare it be said, hope as well. It would seem that during this time of Pandemic, where working from home in isolation to your team has become a new norm, having strategies grounded in neuroscience that can create the trust needed and likely engender hope, is not just useful, it is absolutely a necessity. The future of the organization and more broadly the future of the sector your organization works in will depend on it. 

According to Paul Zak there are 8 management strategies that promote trust and help to create ‘High Trust’ organizations. 

  • Recognize excellence.

“The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.” 

  • Induce “challenge stress.”

“When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections.” 

  • Give people discretion in how they do their work.

“Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator.” 

  • Enable job crafting.

“When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.” 

  • Share information broadly.

“Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote…A 2015 study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports.” 

  • Intentionally build relationships.

“The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends.” 

  • Facilitate whole-person growth.

“High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent.” 

  • Show vulnerability.

“Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. My research team has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals.”

Extracted from: Zak. Paul. J. (2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. In Harvard Business Review January-February 2017. 

How does this help leaders and staff of Government agencies, especially during a Pandemic? In times of crisis, it is essential that leaders, especially leaders of Government and heads of Government Agencies need to be crystal clear about the message and the message needs to engender hope. In countries such as Australia, the Federal Government introduced a range of financial support programs to allow people the chance to cope whilst their workplace was temporarily shut down. Known as the ‘Job-Keeper’ program, the Government effectively pays the wages support to employees of private businesses and public entities, so that when the economy starts to open up again, as it is now doing, there will still be a workforce to restart the engines of the economy. State Governments also had financial support programs. This had the effect of needing to employ additional staff to roll out these programs. The importance of Government Agencies in this crisis means that there needs to be trust within these agencies and of these agencies. In recessionary times the message of trust within our organizations, Government and companies alike, is no longer a luxury, it has become a duty. Read the statistics! ‘High-Trust’ companies are often High-Performing’ and highly productive. Whilst it might sound simplistic, if you are applying for a job with a Government agency, how you create trust and hope with the clients of that agency, may well be a question at interview. The notion of trusting people when it comes to the business of government, comes as a recommendation from at least one well known and respected leader. 

“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” –Abraham Lincoln

cf: Covey, Stephen. M. R., Link, Greg., Merrill, Rebecca, R. (2012). Smart trust: Creating prosperity, energy and joy in a low-trust world (eBook). London: Simon & Schuster. (p.192).


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