Founders’ challenges with communication

Sep 23, 2022
Posted in CULTURE
Sep 23, 2022 Adriana Blazej

“Communication problems” is a general category that can cover lots of different challenges. Lack of commitment, lack of feedback, lack of good candidates for key positions – all these areas can start with communication problems. It is impossible to measure and change something that is not defined clearly, which is why it’s so important to define exactly what communication problems mean for us.

Communication is not just about talking. It’s a two-way street that involves speaking, listening, and responding to what is heard. 

Many founders forget that the heart of effective communication is not only what they themselves say about vision, values, and strategy, but also what employees respond to. Feedback needs to be heard and concrete action needs to be taken. Many organizations pride themselves on building a “feedback culture”, but simply collecting it is not enough. You need real actions and concrete behaviors to show that feedback is being listened. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing authority in the eyes of employees, who know feedback culture only as an empty idea from the company’s sales slides. 

According to various studies, more than 80% of problems in fast-growing companies related to the efficiency and effectiveness of employees’ activities are caused by inadequate communication. Another study shows that the most common area that managers should work on is communication skills. This is indicated by 25% of employees.

We observe 4 areas that come up most often when founders sloganize about communication problems.

1.Expectations cut both ways

Founder’s habits about the way they work translate into expectations for new hires. Of course, the founder is the source and enforcer of the organization’s strategy and vision. At the same time, the expectation that each new person will have a similar level of commitment, and approach the assigned tasks in a similar way, can quickly lead to misunderstandings. And here is where the first roadblock appears — the founder has expectations that the employee does not know about or does not understand. 

The problem is when there is no space to talk about it – information is provided in unclear shortcuts or not at all. Founders are often tight-lipped about setting and enforcing company goals, especially when the organization enters a strong growth phase. Their eagerness to keep the company on track and strive for success means they can lose sight of the bigger picture. They see the path and recall how they took his first business steps, the sacrifices they had to make, and the challenges they faced. 

When new employees don’t show a similar passion and commitment in their approach to work, frustration and doubt begin to set in as to whether they’ve chosen the right people for the organization. Poorly defined or undefined expectations of cooperation from the beginning cause lines of offense and defense to form between employees and the founder. The field for agreement begins to run out. 

This impasse can be broken by showing that the value and importance of communication does not end with declarations, but also with attitudes. When founders say that commitment is important, they should be committed. If they say that the quality of work is important, their own work should be quality. When they appeal to punctuality, they shouldn’t be late. Just talking about being a leader and the name of the position brings no value to the team when it is not supported by real-world behavior. 

2. Communication begins and ends with the founder

Founders feel that everything started with them, so they have to pull all the strings in the organization all the time. As the organization grows, more and more problems appear. There is also more and more need to add definitions, to clarify what our values mean, where we are headed and how we want to get there. New people join with new doubts and questions. They need to know how to talk with others in the company. If each of these elements rests solely on the shoulders of the founder, they will quickly begin to feel the weight. 

This won’t lead them to seek the best solutions, but to get rid of this burden as soon as possible. This is often where the temptation comes in: “Let someone from HR fix this for me”. And yes, this is the area of People & Culture, where we jointly build a strategy of what we want our communication in the company to look like and how to achieve it. 

The key here is to define why we want it to look the way we do, and what purpose it should serve. The founder can’t take all the responsibility for implementing the communication strategy, but must be the source and exemplary executor of it. 

3. A divide between the old guard and new employees

This happens especially when a company goes from being a group of friends to a structured organization. This can resemble a game of tug-of-war. Each side will try to pull everything to its side by showing that their ideas are better for everyone. More experienced employees may be convinced that they know better since, after all, they have been there from the beginning. On the other hand, new employees bring an unbiased perspective (and it’s true! it’s worth taking advantage of), but they have no context, so their outside-of-the-box ideas are misplaced by the company. 

The founder can easily get lost in this uphill climb, jumping from one group to another and trying to make them get along. This can go on indefinitely and can only lead to escalating frustrations and the creation of more creative methods to get their point across. In such a situation, the founder should set boundaries, interrupting these games and referring to the vision and values of the organization. They should also make sure that there are established rules in the organization and how we can voice our concerns and comments (all hands, 1-on-1, feedback sessions). 

Critical voices often allow us to see something that has escaped our attention. While they also can strain our egos, it’s important to let them be heard and see if there can be any real lessons in them. 

4. Too much focus on enforcing, not enough on listening

It is obvious that neither extreme is good. We expect a culture of openness to magically appear in an organization without giving anything back. This cannot work. Without effective enforcement of goals and accountability for work done on an ongoing basis, we will not achieve what we care about in our business. 

Without engaged listening, we can’t tell where the company is going. Employee voices, even (or perhaps especially) critical ones, help us to see dangers in advance and react to them in time. We don’t have to perceive them as a desire to undermine our vision or an inability to fit into the organization. The fact that employees change their minds about the organization is natural. They may lose sight of the vision, they may not understand the values – that’s why communication routines are created to revisit, remind and update. 

Without including the voice of employees in this, it will only show the founder’s vision, which can change like a pennant in the wind.

Final word

The work of any founder, whether with managers or with employees, will not be effective and satisfactory if it is not based on proper communication.

Due to their roles in the company and their personalities, founders are very strongly focused on the effect of activities. They want the company to achieve as much as possible in the shortest possible time, e.g. by scaling the team, increasing sales, or expanding into new markets.

However, it is crucial that they should also be understanding and caring for people while continuing to have high standards. By remaining empathetic, caring, and interested in the working relationship, the founder can expect high-quality and good results from their employees.

*You can learn this approach following one of the better schools of communication by Kim Scott, as set out in the book “Radical Candor.”

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