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The Communication Contract

Written by: Misty Smalley
Published: March 2013

The What?

It seems that every team of which I've been a part throughout my history in the workforce has, when prompted by leadership for improvement suggestions, collectively responded with MORE communication or BETTER communication, or both. I have held roles in all levels of organizations across several different industries that had little in common with each other... and yet, in each, the desire for exemplary information sharing has been a constant. Is there simply a longstanding universal trend toward sparse or ineffective communication on the part of leadership that permeates all industries and lines of business? Or is it one of those amorphous notions for which no amount will ever suffice and no measure of quality will ever satiate the intended receivers?

Let's instead consider communication as a two-way flow that could be improved by both the givers and the receivers with some guidelines for trust and understanding...a Communication Contract.

Why is it necessary?

You and I may hear the same piece of information in very different ways. We've each been through our own life events and make instant projections about the outcome of a situation based on our past experiences. Or the experiences of others we know. Those filters affect our judgment and can quickly get us from information intake to decision-making with very little opportunity for reasoning. In our minds, we may already be planning responses before getting clarity on the actual situation.
This response is commonly known as jumping to conclusions and it is human nature. It perpetuates anger, fear and hosts of other negative emotions... and it is often caused by communication.

But, isn't communication supposed to make us feel better? More in tune with the direction of the team and the business? Absolutely, but just like we ask for communication, perhaps without clear definition of what that means to us, leaders attempt to provide the requested communication, also without clear definition of what it means to us. The information leaders provide, in an effort to meet the goals of MORE and BETTER communication may be relevant and important to leadership, but may be offered at a different level than is appropriate for the team, or may lack context for what it means to those in the audience.

Stop right there. Step back and define, together, what communication means to you. Create a Communication Contract.

How to do it...there is no set format, however here is a good guide:

  • Meet as a team. All in one room if possible, and on a day when everyone can attend (or as close to everyone as you can get). When you call the meeting, explain the purpose in a few sentences so that the team knows what to expect. If you want them to bring ideas, say so. Perhaps offer refreshments... just a nice nonverbal gesture of goodwill.
  • Set the stage. When you are all present, share that it is your intention to deliver what has been requested - but that you need their help. MORE or BETTER communication is a shared goal.
  • Create a safe place to share with honesty. Assure the team that their suggestions/comments will be respected and taken seriously, not judged or used for anything other than improving communication.
  • Acknowledge that what is considered good communication is subjective. Ask for specific examples of what the team members consider good communication.
  • Use a whiteboard or flip chart or some other technically savvy tool that allows all attendees to view the list together and brainstorm.
  • Capture the team's expectations of leadership - those they specifically mention as well as those derived from their suggestions from above.
  • Invite the team to brainstorm the expectations leadership may have of them upon receiving information. For example, asking honest, sometimes difficult questions to get a full understanding of the situation before making assumptions or reacting.
  • Be frequent. Put a meeting on the calendar specifically for communication and do not move or cancel. Attend, even if there do not seem to be topics for discussion... that can change once you're all there together for that purpose.
  • Transcribe the meeting materials/lists into a Communication Contract and distribute to all members of the team. Post prominently within the department and revisit often.

Communication is a bit more like rocket science than any of us would like to believe, and it is not a task that can be finished and checked off the list. It develops and changes over time.

Other best practices? Share them!

Misty Smalley

Misty Smalley

Misty Smalley is an HR leader and writer who actively pursues interests in executive coaching, organizational development and training design. A life-long learner, she joyfully strives to help others to explore the meaning in their own journeys, then to express it authentically.