September 5, 2018

How can you facilitate great internal communications?

Elizabeth Ricca, Big Duck’s Managing Director, shares tools and practices that can help facilitate great internal communications. She gives tips on how to use organizational values actively as an HR tool and provides a structured feedback exercise you can put into practice to spark meaningful, productive conversations between staff. Listen in.


Sarah Durham: This is Sarah Durham and you are listening to another episode of the Smart Communications podcast. And my guest today is Elizabeth Ricca. Hi Liz.

Elizabeth Ricca: Hello.

Sarah: Liz is Big Duck’s Managing Director and she has, at various points in her career here—which has spanned over 10 years—been on our strategy team, and our relationship management team. She was our Director of Strategy for many years. But in her current role, she is largely focused on Big Duck strategy, internal operations, and still works with clients on client strategy. But we’re going to talk today about internal communications. You know, one of the things I find myself saying often to organizations is if you’re not communicating well internally, it can be hard to communicate well externally. So, that’s what we’ll dig into and see. And there are a few practices that we use here, we’ll share on this podcast, and if anybody has practices you use in your organization that you think help facilitate great internal communications, I hope you will email us at [email protected] and share those with us. So first, let’s talk about values and how values can be useful in terms of facilitating healthy internal communications. What do you think, Liz?

Liz: Most of the organizations we work with, I would say every organization we work with, has values. Some have articulated them and some have not. And organizations who have gone through a process of articulating and expressing their values have at their hands a really a powerful tool that primarily can be used to make sure your whole team is rowing in the same direction. That’s, I think, one of the ways we think about our values here. We post them publicly, we try to make them as alive as possible, and if you read our values and you don’t share them, then you probably aren’t a great fit with our team. And I think that many of our clients who have value statements that really feel alive to them, feel similarly.

Liz: I’ve recently worked with a couple of organizations that are so clearly driven by powerful values that really are not articulated and those, they’re missing an opportunity there. And I think it’s both inspiring for staff to get a chance to sit down and commit to paper what it is that drives them every day. And it is a useful management tool for both your organization strategically, and people management, right? It’s easier to have a conversation with somebody who has just done an action that you disagree with, or approach something in a way that you wouldn’t through the lens of values, than through the lens of your personal opinions.

Sarah: That’s definitely a place where values, I think, can provide a framework for conversation. So, one of our core values at Big Duck is directness. And that’s definitely a place where we attempt to guide how we communicate internally. So you’re talking about first, if the values of the organization are stated, you’re more likely to actually hire, attract and retain people who are likely to communicate at least in some way, hopefully with each other because they share common values. But then also values can be used as a tool to surface conflict, or resolve conflict, or maybe surface alignment. How else do you see values being an HR tool?

Liz: Well, several of the systems that we use or have used in the past recommend reviewing on values, sometimes exclusively. And that’s not a practice that we’ve tried. We always include values in our reviews, but if your organizational values really express what’s important to you, you should be able to look at anybody in your company and your organization and run down your list of six or so values. And say that they represent that value most of the time. And if you can’t say that, then you may have a performance issue that you should investigate more closely.

Sarah: I just worked with an organization that has a value that’s stated as something like “constructively candid and collaborative”, something like that. And a staff person came up to me and was expressing some frustration at another staff person. And I said, “Have you been constructively candid and collaborative with the staff person you’re frustrated with?” And they said, “Well, it’s really hard for me to talk to this person about that.” And so the conversation unfolded about what was the best way to actually bring that value to life, right? To facilitate a conversation about it? And I think what you’re adding to that would be, well, maybe when this person who struggles with being constructively candid gets reviewed, that can be surfaced in a review. That value can help identify some areas for growth and improvement with people, or maybe if they’re not the right fit at all.

Liz: Right.

Sarah: You know, another tool that I’m a big fan of is having a framework through which people give each other feedback. I think that’s another important way to facilitate internal communications that relates a lot to values like collaboration, directness, etc. So we give feedback here, why don’t you explain how we do that?

Liz: Yeah. We worked with a company a few years ago that introduced us to this framework and it’s pretty straightforward, and it might sound a little cheesy, but we found it really is an effective way to have better, more candid, more constructive conversations with folks. The feedback exchange is usually between two people, and it starts with the person who is seeking feedback, asking for feedback. Sarah, what feedback do you have for me? That’s part one. Then part two, Sarah shares her appreciative feedback on the subject that I asked. You can ask it open ended the way that I did. What feedback do you have, generally. But usually it’s most helpful to ask something like, what feedback do you have for me about the podcast we just recorded?

Liz: Sarah would start step two with her appreciative feedback about that recording session, what she thought worked well. Then step three, she would share her constructive feedback. What she thought I could work on for next time. Then step four, I the feedback seeker, thank her for her feedback. You’ll note that there is no step for argument, or even really discussion. The point of this particular flavor of feedback exercise is for the person seeking feedback to just open their ears, to be receptive to what the other person has to say. And it is absolutely the case that when you’re getting feedback from somebody, usually you have in your mind a whole bunch of buts, and context, and things that maybe they don’t know about the situation, and all that is fine. None of it changes the helpfulness of the feedback that they’re offering in the spirit of openness and collaboration.

Liz: So that’s the model for the exchange that we try to use. And I will say that the rigor of our practice waxes and wanes both in finding time to have those exchanges at all, and in the discipline with which we really follow that structure. I’ve definitely been in feedback exchanges where someone’s constructive feedback leads to a, “That’s so interesting. I was thinking about blah blah blah.” And we find ourselves discussing it instead of just accepting it, but it’s still always constructive.

So that feedback model or framework, we were taught by an organization called Partners in Leadership who we hired probably four or five years ago to come in and do a day long staff retreat for us. And throughout the course of the day, all of the exercises we did were about internal communications. And one of the things I think makes it effective is that it is a formal model. You’re supposed to go through those certain steps that Liz just outlined. And so you learn how to do it, it’s easy to learn, and then you have to practice it. And when we were coming out of that staff retreat many years ago, Partners in Leadership recommended that we ask four or five people for feedback every week for like two months or something. It was what felt like a lot of feedback exchanges, and they did that because we had to build a muscle of giving each other feedback.

Sarah: And my experience has been that the people who are in that training who are still here today, and who built that muscle, are much more comfortable with it and much more able to surface it, and pivot into it, and even … Most of us, even now at this point, we’ll say, “May I give you some unsolicited feedback?” And well, you and I do that regularly. We’ll kind of proactively offer feedback even if we’re not invited to do so. It’s really dangerous to give somebody unsolicited feedback if they haven’t asked for it. And it’s also harder for people who haven’t been through a lot of practice sessions to build that muscle. But for me, that feedback framework has been essential to building the ability to be better at being direct.

Liz: I think it’s also a very helpful tool for people who are new to a team or maybe new to their careers, because it provides a structure in which you have permission and a clear set of expectations around communicating your point. So, it would be virtually impossible to imagine, you know, a new person in the first month of their job walking up to the CEO to offer them unsolicited feedback. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it will be very hard. But with this structure, it creates a cultural expectation around feedback that’s not loaded, and that gives a person who might be sort of working to apply, in our case, the value of directness, or to get comfortable with a feedback culture. There’s a clear way to approach the conversation, and a known set of expectations.

Liz: Everybody learns pretty quickly that after their first meeting with Sarah on the job here, she’s going to stop and ask them, “What feedback do you have for me?” And knowing that question is going to come and knowing how you’re supposed to answer it, with the appreciative and the constructive, makes it a little bit less daunting to do that.

Sarah: Yeah, and it’s surprisingly kind of revelatory, I think for most people, how good the constructive feedback usually feels. You kind of brace yourself for it. I mean, I can only think of one time in the probably hundreds, maybe thousands of feedback sessions I’ve had where anybody said anything that really stung. Although I probably learned the most from that. But we’re really talking here about facilitating interpersonal communications, making sure that things don’t get in the way of you collaborating with your peers in ways that are kind of the baggage that we carry around, and how to kind of clear out that baggage. And I’m thinking before we wrap up that it might also be useful to touch on some of, maybe, the systems, or tools, or other ways that can facilitate good internal communications.

Sarah: So, at Big Duck for instance, we use Slack. We have a daily standup meeting, we have a weekly meeting we call Team Time, and baked into all of those are some practices or some ways we try to facilitate seamless flows of information internally so we do a better job communicating with our clients externally. Are there any things in any of those or other practices you’ve seen organizations use that you think are particularly useful?

Liz: Well, I think every organization has their own set of those kinds of practices that work for them. I do think these days it is essential to have some kind of messaging tool. The organizations that I’ve seen that don’t use a chat application that everybody is on and accessible, resort to emailing at all hours of the day. And that is generally unhealthy and inefficient. So, whenever we see, and this isn’t typically the purview of our engagement, but whenever we see a client that hasn’t really crossed into that space yet, we really encourage them to pick something. If Slack feels a little hard to use, there are lots of options out there. But something that gives you easy, lightweight ways to be in touch with your colleagues in real time.

Liz: I also think it’s really essential that a healthy team has some sort of consistent all team touchpoint. How often and what form can depend a lot on the nature of the work you do together in the size of the team. For us, a weekly meeting really makes sense. For some organizations that have far flung teams working all over the country or the world, hundreds of people, it might be once a year, a few times a year that you really get everyone together in a physical or virtual environment. But think about what makes the most sense for your team and do that deliberately. Because if there are no experiences that you create that the whole team has shared as a basis, there’s going to be something missing from the sort of fabric of your experiences together.

Sarah: All right, well, this is a big topic. I feel like we could spend a lot of time going down that road, and sharing some of the things we’ve seen organizations do that have been effective. But just in the interest of keeping it short and sweet, we’re going to wrap up and encourage people who would like to share maybe some things with us and maybe we’ll do a follow up on this topic. Thanks Liz.

Liz: Thank you.

Sarah: Hey, if you’re like me, you are probably listening to this podcast on your iPhone, and a lot of people don’t know that you can rate and review podcasts pretty easily on an iPhone, but it’s a little bit buried. So, I wanted to tell you how to do that and I’m hoping that if you like this podcast, you’ll take a minute to scroll down, rate it, review it, maybe share it.

Sarah: So what you do is click on podcasts on your iPhone, that’s the podcast app. And then open up your library and click on the Smart Communications podcast. You’ll see all of our episodes there. So, if there’s something you’ve missed and you want to go back and check it out, you can do so there. And as you scroll down you’ll see a section that’s called ratings and reviews. And in that you can give us anywhere from one to five stars, and you can even write a review, or you can share the podcast with a friend. So, I hope if you like it, you’ll take time to share it, rate it. And we’re also always eager to hear what you think directly, so don’t hesitate to drop us a line. You can email us at [email protected]. That’s [email protected]. Thanks for listening.