IMPROVING COMMUNICATION

BY STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC

Communication is the most important aspect of management: You can be exceptionally organized but if you are poor in communication, that organization is for naught. You cannot be good at delegation if you are not a good communicator. And planning falls by the wayside when those plans aren’t effectively communicated. Yet, most organizations struggle in an environment of poor or inadequate communication.

Each new year, we resolve to lose some weight, get into better shape, become more organized, and work for world peace (that last one is for those who like to ensure there is at least one resolution that is beyond reach). Many of the self-help gurus, in their books, talk about a process of thinking that involves determining where you would like to be in three, five, and 10 years and what you have to do to achieve those results. In reality, few individuals actually carry out that planning process. For most of us, living our life each day can prove a big enough chore.

ORGANIZATIONS MUST PLAN FOR THE LONG TERM

But organizations are different. They involve many people who are affected by what the organization does and what happens to the organization. There is an obligation to plan over a long-term horizon (in spite of some organizations’ penchant for a short-term result orientation) and to think about the future and how the organization will fit into that future.

In particular, there is an obligation to constantly strive for organizational improvement. In many ways, it’s a commitment to leave the organization in better condition for future members. A volunteer fire department is no different.

RESOLVE TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION

Every organization should resolve to improve internal, interpersonal communication. No organization is as good at communication as it should be, so if your organization is in need of improving its internal communication system, it is in the company of a large number of departments. However, being in a large group of company is little comfort. It’s a pretty poor mission statement that hangs on the premise, “We are no worse than anyone else.”

Communication is the single most important factor that can make a difference in your department’s behavior, morale, recruiting, and retention. Yet for some reason, volunteer fire departments are among the poorest at communicating. In all fairness, some paid and combination departments need to improve their communication skills. Unfortunately, as my colleague John Fitzwilliam put it in a recent column in this same space, one of the negative results of poor communication is that members “vote with their feet.”1 At a time when the volunteer fire service needs more members and contributions, this is a problem that must be addressed.

Sound, ongoing, open communication can positively affect any department. Every department has its grapevine and rumor mill. These flourish because of poor communication that manifests itself in a number of ways. Most significantly, departments tend to segment the membership in terms of what they think is a “need-to-know” basis. The problem is when an organization, any organization, begins to determine who should know something and who shouldn’t; those on the outside will speculate about what those on the inside know. By definition, you’ll never convince them that there isn’t something going on behind closed doors that everyone should know.

COMMUNICATION AND MOTIVATION: THE CORRELATION

In reality, little goes on in a volunteer fire department that everyone shouldn’t know about. In a very real way, all members are equal: All give of their time; energy; and, often, substance to contribute to the department. What motivates members to make these sacrifices? To paraphrase one of my former consulting partners, most people are “motivated by open, honest, two-way communication of information.”2 My consulting colleagues Tom Peters and Bob Waterman observed that excellent organizations use open communication in ways their nonexcellent counterparts do not.3

Most volunteer departments segment the membership. Chief officers have their meetings to talk about stuff they believe only they should talk about; line officers have meetings to talk about stuff they believe only they should talk about; and the board has its meetings to discuss its important matters. Then there is communication that occurs because someone is close to someone else “in the know.”

It is true that information is powerful. And there are those who believe that by having information others don’t have, they are among the powerful. But, in fact, all are part of a voluntary organization that exists for a common purpose. Very little of what is discussed in these meetings is by its nature confidential.

In fact, the only matter that has significant legal implication and should be confidential is personnel related. What’s amazing is that these matters tend to be the ones discussed in an open meeting with the membership-at-large so that they know what’s going on. We have it backward: That which should be kept confidential is shared openly; that which should be open to all is segmented and communicated in bits and pieces, if at all.

True power comes from the dissemination of information and empowerment of all members. Let’s use an engine as an analogy: It runs most powerfully, most effectively, and most efficiently when the distribution of fuel is equal to all components driving the engine. Restricting fuel levels to some areas while increasing the flow to others doesn’t improve the engine’s performance; it makes it run roughly and can even ultimately damage the engine. The same is true of communication. Open, equal communication will allow the department to obtain maximum effectiveness from its members.

Resolve that things will be different in your department. Some techniques you might try include opening up officers’ and board meetings and posting minutes. In those open meetings, provide a time for the comments of the members present. This will allow the business of that meeting to be accomplished and yet provide a forum for hearing the thoughts of others. If the officers or board must consider a personnel matter, move the meeting into executive session. Although some may think this will cause more speculation, most members appreciate that “dirty laundry” is not aired in public. Posted minutes should encourage members to ask questions and even submit questions or thoughts in writing for subsequent consideration. If your department operates by committees, have those committees make minutes of their meetings, and post them as well.

In the end, I don’t think the department or its leadership can overcommunicate. Hopefully, within a short time, your department will be celebrating the strides it has made toward opening up communications and will be benefiting from the additional contributions of those members who traditionally have been left out.

References

  1. Fitzwilliam, John F., “Keep Members from ‘Voting with Their Feet,'” Fire Engineering, Jan. 2001, 10-14.
  2. Shaw, John C., The Service Focus. (Dow-Jones Irwin, 1990), 184.
  3. Peters, Thomas J. and Waterman, Robert H. In Search of Excellence. (Harper & Row, 1982), 121-122.

STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC, is a founding principal of The Sage Group, a professional management consulting and public policy research firm specializing in serving local government organizations. He started in the fire/rescue service in the Vienna (VA) Volunteer Fire Department (Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Services) more than 30 years ago and is currently a member of the Bay Leaf Volunteer Fire Department in Wake County, North Carolina. Savia has a BA and an MA and has pursued doctoral study in public policy. He is a certified management consultant and past national chairman of the Institute of Management Consultants (USA). He teaches a variety of public administration and fire service subjects.

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