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The Safe Space #1 – communication challenges

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Welcome to the Safe Space – where managers can share their issues and gain advice from top learning & development consultants.

Here at =mc, we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this new regular blog we’ll be sharing some of those challenges, and our advice for dealing with them.

In this opening episode of the Safe Space, we address a challenge faced by an established manager at a mid-sized UK Charity.

What’s the issue?

‘Dear Safe Space, I’ve been a Philanthropy manager for a couple of years and have a team of 6 people. Our team sits in Fundraising, and as you can imagine we are just one small team in a much larger department. My team are great, we all get along and everyone has coped well with all that 2020 has thrown at us. We’ve had some good results too. But I’m getting seriously frustrated with the rest of the department. Everyone just gets their heads down and focuses on their own little world. But with so much change going on, the cracks are starting to show. There is a complete lack of communication across teams. It is starting to cause some real headache: I’ve seen projects that are duplicating work, supporters being engaged by different teams and getting mixed messages, and I’m worried this is going to cause harm to the relationships my team have worked so hard to build. I’ve tried to bring this up with other managers in the department, but my concerns fall on deaf ears. Should I go to the boss? I don’t want to be that person, but I’m so fed up. Help!’

What our consultants say:

Yvette:

Dear manager, this sounds like a tough situation. You are not alone, we know lots and lots of people are dealing with a silo mentality. I know it is really frustrating you, and that is not a nice way to feel about work. I think the first step is to try and understand why people work in this way: ask yourself why would your usually brilliant, reasonable, rationale, wonderful colleagues behave in such selfish ways? What might that have changed? It could be that because of childcare, restrictions, health problems, worries about loved ones etc, that they have a limited capacity to engage with work and so are focussed on ‘what must be done’. That in itself can cause communication to fall off the to-do list. This can be further compounded by working at home, whereby being out of sight so often causes people to be out of mind. This kind of working isn’t necessarily intended to be a personal slight and isn’t necessarily about trying to undermine the great work your team are doing. It just may take a bit more effort than normal to unpick unhelpful behaviours given the challenges that people are facing.

You say you have tried to work with other managers on this. I would revisit that and hold an open conversation. Explain you want to see teams working together and being as effective as possible. Give really specific feedback on the problems you have had, and your suggestions for fixing those problems. Don’t just complain – explain what could be done to make things better. And then make sure you are listening to how others have experienced this too. Ultimately, if this doesn’t work then you may need to go to your boss as you suggest – but it is always best to try and deal with these issues peer-to-peer first.

Charlie:

Hi manager, I feel your pain! I’ve been there, not at =mc thank goodness, but when I have worked with larger organisations. I would add that it sounds like you have a fantastic team and that you and your team could be the ones to lead on tackling this problem. There is something about being the change you want to see – have your team be role models for cross-team working and build a reputation for being collaborators that bring others together.

To start, think about your team and the ways in which they rely on others. I find it useful to create a map, a network of sorts. Who does your team need to interact with to get the job done? Think beyond fundraising, and even beyond the organisation.  Who do you rely on? What for? And then reverse the questions. Who needs your team to get their job done? What for? Once you have it all mapped out, you can look for ways to strengthen those relationships. Ask what is needed in each interdependency and how you can strengthen that. What gets in the way or undermines the relationship? What actions could you take to make every interaction as positive as possible? Encourage your team to work with their peers in other teams, so that communication flows are not getting bottlenecked by managers. You’ll find that the stronger those person-to-person relationships are, the more likely other teams will keep your work front of mind, and vice versa.

Hope that helps!

Laura:

Hello manager, I’m sorry to hear you are in such a pickle. I was really struck by what you said about duplication and people not knowing what others are working on. I wonder if this is new, and a reaction to the changes happening at your organisation? I see it all the time, when there isn’t an established system of project management and governance in place. But it could also happen when there is a shift in direction and suddenly plans are not as concrete as they once were. This kind of problem crops up when people start using different ways of working and there isn’t a clear articulation of how every new project aims to deliver the organisation’s strategic goals. Its’ part of handling change: change needs innovation, innovating means doing different things. And that requires experimenting and moving away from established processes. Putting in place some shared insights and structure would help. That sounds really fancy, but it doesn’t have to be.

Again, as Charlie says, I think it’s worth linking up with your peers in other teams. In a short meeting you could establish who is working on what, and then determine whether there is any duplication, or better yet – ways to make projects more efficient by sharing resources. Every piece of work should be articulated in terms of how it will deliver on strategic aims and the outcomes you expect to see. You might want to bring in a common planning approach, which can make communication much better as everyone uses the same language to explain their work. Take a look at these common project management tools and see which might work for you.

Good luck, and please let us know how you get on.

Join in

If you have a challenging management situation or problem you want some help with, then email it to safespace@managementcentre.co.uk. Sadly, we won’t be able to publish every email and response. However, a consultant will always get back to you personally.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project management and management development Laura has 8 years experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering volunteer and community projects. Before joining =mc...

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlotte Scott

Charlotte specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlotte worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc seven years ago, she created and implemented a...

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...

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