It’s actually no secret at all. Successful internal communication is not an event; it is the sum total of all the little things you do and say every day to take people with you on the journey. It’s all about context.

Most humans fear falling. Studies done by psychologists Gibson & Walk showed that 75% of infants withdrew from areas presenting a fall risk; 17% froze when they realised the danger and only 8% ventured over the edge (Wikipedia: fear of falling).

Yet, leaders in organisations often set themselves up for a fall.

As soon as they reach a certain level of seniority in an organisation, they seem to start believing that people lower down no longer have the capacity to process information and deal with uncertainty. Leaders tell themselves that they must first have all the answers before they can share the big picture with the rest of the organisation. Based on this misconception, they set about building a virtual staircase of small decisions.

When the day arrives to make a big announcement, they find themselves isolated at the top of the staircase. There is no way the audience can catch up – they have to go through the same process to reach the high place where leadership lives. Leaders who fail to create context can go only one way: down.

The power of context

Most of the small steps that build the staircase are decisions we don’t think important enough to communicate. It is a set of behaviours, the way we do things around here, and often the issue is not what we say but what we don’t say.

Imagine if you only spoke to your spouse on big days like engagements, wedding days or the christening of a child. It is a laughable idea, isn’t it? Why then do we do it with our colleagues and team members?

When you are in a situation, you don’t see it for what it is. But when you ask any outsider, such as a consultant, what you should have done differently they will point out the staircases you have built. It is therefore important to have a network of trusted individuals, who are not part of your organisation, to point out these mistakes.

A well-planned, researched and focused stakeholder relations or communication strategy will ensure that you have processes in place to provide context to your audience. Context is one of the strategic elements we measure in the strategic communication scorecard (adapted from the work of Julia Coffman).

Context refers to factoring in risks and circumstantial information that will have an influence on your communication success, both inside and outside your organisation. In our communication research, context is always one of the lowest scoring elements for most of our clients.

Most leaders assume that their audience is on the same step as they are. More often than not, they are wrong. As a communication professional, you should play the role of the “inside-outsider” and help leadership to understand the information that needs to be communicated.

Public relations, internal communication and stakeholder relations are not just for announcements of new developments or for when we need something from our stakeholders. Communication tools are not just there for what we want to say.

You must actively build context and relationships with your audiences through your sustained and consistent communication efforts. Excellent communication practices entail doing the hard work every day. It takes effort to communicate meaningfully with our audiences. It means we have to know them well enough to share the everyday chatter without over communicating. You have to package the information cleverly in an integrated, planned and measured way. So that when you make your big announcement, your audience will celebrate and embrace it because they understand the context in all its richness.

Leaders build a virtual staircase of small decisions (left) when they don’t take their people with them step by step (right). It is a simple analogy, but some of our clients have changed their internal climate just by focussing on this one message: “Don’t build steps!”

You don’t have to have all the answers before you start communicating. Share what you know. Take people with you and make it possible for them to participate.

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