Management: Communicate or perish

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The Independent Online
Industrial disputes like the one afflicting Britain's railways follow where industrial relations have broken down.

This is obvious. But less well acknowledged are the factors behind this - largely lack of proper communication and attitudinal problems.

Too often the means for effective dialogue simply do not exist. In many cases, communication means telling, not listening - a decision imposed, not agreed. Yet if we do not know what is in the minds of others, we fall into the terrible trap of assuming we know, and thus base our actions on seriously false premises.

The conditions for breakdown or dispute are at their most volatile when these bases of assumption on both sides are false and fuelled by speculation derived from insufficient dialogue. An absence of positive communication ahead of events rather than reacting to them creates a vacuum of uncertainty.

More than 90 per cent of people are thought likely to fill this vacuum with negative speculation. Truth is marginal - assumptions become facts and attempts at denial, even to restore the basis of truth, are seen as confrontational or manipulative.

The only sure remedy against negative speculation lies in a willingness to install and manage continuous communications, so that the beliefs, aspirations and concerns of all stakeholders are properly understood.

The attitudinal problem can be understood by the way that, while sales professionals talk of getting to 'win-win' with their customers, some industrialists and union officials see industrial relations as 'heads I win, tails you lose'.

I remember having had spelt out to me, while working in US corporate management, that it was a signal failure to 'let the union into your operations'. This view was chronically adversarial, negative and based on the false premise that no good ever came out of professional industrial relations. Trade unionists might equally, and just as wrongly, be dubbed with the belief that they see no good coming out of management.

There is no problem with the normal notions of competitive behaviour that imply winners and losers when they are commercial competitors - that is good for customers and the market as a whole. But within the single entity it creates a spectacular gap for competitors to exploit.

Weak industrial relations are serious enough, as millions of rail travellers know. But the correlation between poor communication and breakdown in critical relationships is nearly universal - valid in the home as much as in geopolitics.

This is clear from studies of commercial negotiation, account management and the more recent field of customer relationship marketing being undertaken at Sundridge Park.

Research conducted last year in account management techniques reveals an alarming similarity between the blind assumptions so prevalent in industrial relations and the failure of organisations generally to communicate bilaterally with their clients.

Both manifestations are wantonly expensive and come to the same inevitable outcomes - loss of work, respect, profit, shareholder value and sustainable competitive advantage. Communicate or die is a warning we must all heed.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre.

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