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What David Cameron can teach us about communication blunders

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This has arguably been David Cameron‘s worst month in office. A number of blunders and miscommunicated messages, and then retractions and clarification, have weakened his cabinet’s credibility.

It’s often said that Government is much like a business. All businesses and governments face leadership challenges. The key to great leadership is clear and well thought-out communication. It’s the engine oil flowing through the organisational structure and making it work effectively. Done well, it means that organisational output is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Poor quality oil means the engine works less well, resulting in a higher level of delays, mistakes, misunderstandings, bottlenecks, accidents and low morale. There’s no shortage of communication from the Government – but it’s not always very good and can prompt the wrong results, as last month’s petrol panic proves.

So, what steps can you, as a business, take to ensure that your communication is clear and effective?

Getting the message across is a two-way process between a transmitter of information and a receiver. It’s essential to take steps to ensure that you’re both heard and understood. The first step is to decide when, what and how you will communicate. What is it you want to achieve?

In planning the process, consider the type of person the recipient is and if possible tailor your style to his. What might influence your success (positively or negatively)? You might think that you don’t have time to take other peoples’ feelings and operating styles into consideration, but if you want to get to where you want quickly and keep people on board, then it’s worth the investment.

Be clear, concise and firm about your point. It’s helpful to provide context and relate the message to larger goals. Agree on any actions to be taken and check that the recipient understands. If you’re working one to one, you can ask the other person to reflect back your request to you. In other cases it can be useful to use examples and stories to illustrate the point and give a sense of perspective.

Day in, day out my team and I give advice on employment matters, a complex technical area, so we adopt these points and then write to the recipient of the advice to confirm it. While our clients always have the opportunity to ask questions while we’re in conversation, the written advice allows the recipient to check his understanding and ask further questions before taking action. It means that the application of the advice is correct. Afterwards evaluate the effectiveness of the communication and take corrective action if appropriate.

If communication is poor in your organisation, give some thought to what the problem might be. Only once you’ve done that you’ll be able take steps to improve. Standard barriers to successful communication are:

  • A lack of clarity about objectives;
  • Inappropriate language or format for the recipient;
  • Poorly thought-out timing;
  • No vehicle to check that the message has been correctly received; and
  • Lack of respect by either party for the other.

In any organisation you want to ensure that employees buy into and deliver on the values and objectives of the business. One of my business colleagues, Richard Salvage, MD of the Medsa Group puts it very well: “Have a mission statement and a business plan. The mission statement is the ‘what’; the business plan is the ‘how’.”

He’s absolutely right. Define these clearly and you and the management team will have a roadmap. Effective communication is the most important key to success in business (and in government) – so learn how to be a compelling communicator.

Kate Russell is MD of Russell HR Consulting.

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