When communication is all over the place, it can be nearly impossible for teams to get anywhere.
The Fallout As I looked across the room, I began to take inventory of everyone around me. It was unusually quiet, despite the number of people present. Though their bodies were there, almost all of the attendees were mentally and emotionally disconnected from one another. Checked. Out.
Some of my colleagues were tapping away on their cell phones while others stared blankly out of windows, tracing shadows in the air with their fingers as they danced across the wall. Everyone was ready for it to be over, myself included to be fair, and the meeting hadn’t even begun.
Once the meeting did start, some straggling team members sauntered in, late and preoccupied with contending thoughts about their own business for the day. It was clear that no one was there for any of it.
It was a corrective meeting, the type where everyone was gathered for the purpose of hearing the passionate displeasure of a senior leader after a project didn’t land well. This was supposed to be a debrief meeting, but we all knew that the real debrief took place after leadership left. No, this was simply discontentment on display.
As the team began unpacking all of the things that had gone wrong, the tension gradually began to bubble in the room. Before long, the unspoken undercurrent erupted into a full-on argument. Blame shifting, finger-pointing, and over-talking quickly took over, and by the end, everyone was more frustrated than they were before the meeting began.
Despite being among some of the most capable leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, the failures unearthed in that meeting highlighted a real challenge that had never been fully addressed.
I suppose this is true for most teams; root causes of conflict are rarely fully addressed.
In our case, all of our conflicts boiled down to fragmented communication. That singular factor created a dense fog around our team that made it nearly impossible to see through.
The Fog of War Carl von Clausewitz is credited with coining the military concept known as the ‘fog of war.’ It illustrates the uncertainty and lack of situational awareness experienced during a military operation due to the complexity of gathering accurate and timely information. To put it succinctly, you only know what you know.
For reasons not so dissimilar, many leaders find themselves navigating a version of this fog as well. A lack of clarity leads to a lack of informed and timely decision-making. A lack of decision-making leads to a lack of forward progress. And a lack of forward progress inevitably leads to… more discontentment on display.
Concealed in our fog were creatures of habit — big unstated grudges (bugs). These bugs were of our own making and they crawled around in the minds of leaders across every team, unimpeded in their movement. These bugs fed on unity, clarity, collaboration, and accountability while simultaneously breeding disdain and contempt. As the bugs grew larger and multiplied, they directly contributed to a near-complete lack of a unified effort across the organization.
We all wanted the same outcome, but individuals and teams had a very different understanding of what the necessary outputs should be.
Coupled with the demanding pace at which the organization moved and the sheer volume of projects we were managing, this all but guaranteed that expectations would not be met due to a misalignment of effort.
We broke the rules that were intended to protect us from ourselves. Policies gave way to practices. Practices gave way to pressure. We consistently worked against the clock. Last-minute was a lifestyle. We rarely failed, but we consistently failed to feel as though the results had been worth the effort. We were a group of individuals, trying to work together as an individual group.
And it was just another Monday.
To say that our problems boiled down to fragmented communication might be an over-simplification. In truth, our communication was decent. The real culprit was a bit more sophisticated than that.
Many organizations enjoy a decentralized communication structure between departments and teams. This gives individual business units greater flexibility to communicate to their stakeholders according to their own unique needs. With this type of structure, however, leaders must be diligent about assuring quality, consistency, and integration of messages across the board (Argenti, 2013). More than that, they have to ensure that the sum of each team’s efforts is both accessible and complimentary.
In our case, that kind of accountability didn't exist. Instead, key details about big plans were routinely shared at the last minute and in silos, many times intentionally — strategic ambiguity. This led to critical information being revealed to different stakeholders at different times. This habit of fragmented communication meant that at any given time, no two stakeholder groups ever had the same vision for anything.
Complicating matters further was the fact that each team used different mediums to communicate and document progress, all while working on the same project. Any given project was caught in a tangled web of Zoom meetings and in-person meetings, Slack channel conversations, business emails, text messages, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Microsoft Teams chats, OneDrive shared folders, back-channel phone calls, hallway conversations, and an unfathomable list of online project management tools ranging from Monday.com, Airtable, and Asana to Teamwork, Trello, and Smartsheets.
As a consequence, it was common for individual teams working on the same project to leave the same meeting with a completely different understanding of what needed to be accomplished.
It wasn’t that our teams weren’t collaborating, because they were. Instead, the problem was that the teams weren’t coordinated.
The result of all this was an infestation. Big unstated grudges were everywhere. Internally, the organization became defined by rumor mill and careless whispers. This person didn’t like that person. That team didn’t trust this team. Rampant distrust and a lack of psychological safety caused individuals to bite their tongues in public and brandish them in private. Factions formed. Backbiting was common. We were, all of us, swept away by undercurrent.
Proposed solutions? They included interpersonal training, book studies, psychometric assessments, offsite team-building activities, consultants, organizational realignments, facilitated mediations, and more. All, paths to nowhere.
The reality is that we were trying to solve a communication problem, but fragmented communication was a byproduct of designed chaos. What we needed to solve was an organizational coordination problem. Even when you can have healthy dialogue, you can’t talk your way out of organizational chaos.
Lifting The Fog To alleviate the fog of war, military commanders must accept a trade-off of precision and certainty for speed and agility. In business, leaders must develop systems that allow them to do the same.
The most effective leaders know that they will never have all the information they need. In order to ensure an alignment of effort, however, leaders must seek out ways to streamline communication in order to capture the information they do have and disseminate it effectively.
A leader’s role is to ensure that information is shared in a timely and agile way across their teams and organization.
When information is not shared quickly, consistently, and predictably, teams may adopt an adversarial and competing style of conflict that directly impacts how they work and communicate with one another, and how they feel about each other. In fact, unpredictable information sharing leads to predictable escalations, hostilities, and aggressiveness (or in our case, passive-aggressiveness).
Communication evolves quickly from requests to demands, demands to complaints, complaints to angry statements, angry statements to threats, threats to harassment, and harassment to verbal abuse (Johnson & Roloff, 2000). Fragmented communication isn’t broken communication. On the contrary, all of the details are present, they’ve just not yet converged.
Informal and fragmented communication means that information will be everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. In essence, collaboration and coordination become impossible. The fog of war diminishes situational awareness and robs leaders of the ability to make informed decisions.
To ensure the successful convergence of divergent information, leaders should be intentional about creating formal processes that funnels information to one place. These processes need not be complex, but should at the very least include four tiers of stakeholder engagement.
Awareness > Access >Accountability > Ownership
1. Stakeholders who should be aware of a project.
Stakeholders in this tier should have access to limited project information regarding the overall vision for a project, timeline for completion, and end state expectations.
Stakeholders in this tier may or may not be directly impacted or involved in the work regarding the information they are being made aware of. Still the information may serve as a trigger for this stakeholder group to do something in response. An example of this may be an interior decorator who needs to order furniture from a vendor upon the completion of a specific office buildout phase, or staff members and customers who might be impacted by a technology transition following an IT system upgrade.
Avoid the practice of transferring information to tier 1 stakeholders in a unidirectional manner. Just because a message was sent doesn't mean the message was received. Just because a message was received doesn't mean that it was read. And just because it was read, that doesn’t mean it was understood.
Though this group may have little to no engagement with a particular project that's being discussed, it is important to make sure that bi-directional conversations take place regularly to ensure mutual understanding. In some instances, it may be appropriate to capture acknowledgments that are dated and time-stamped to ensure receipt of information.
2. Stakeholders who have access to project resources and data. Stakeholders in this tier will have access to more detailed information because they will have specific tasks and deliverables that they will be required to complete or present in order to advance a project.
This tier can be comprised of both individuals or whole teams. Though they will not be responsible for the project in its entirety, their efforts will ultimately impact the project as a whole. Because the stakeholders in this tier are directly involved in the work of what is being discussed, they will also need to know who else is working on the same project and what else is being worked on in order to avoid conflicts.
3. Stakeholders who are accountable to a project’s outcome. Stakeholders in this tier are responsible for a project and are ultimately accountable for its success or failure, therefore, all communicated information should be known to this tier. They may be responsible for casting the vision or ensuring that the casted vision is successfully brought to life. They are the conduits through which information is exchanged, not the repositories through which information is contained.
They are responsible for managing people, timelines, resources, scope creep, ensuring that the project doesn’t grow too large, take too long, change too much, or cost more than budgeted. When necessary, this group will pivot a project, overseeing change orders and realigning teams and efforts accordingly.
4. Stakeholders who own some or all of the vision for a project. In some instances, projects will have an owner or several owners who are removed from the direct work but still have the power and authority to dictate how the work is completed. These dominant stakeholders could be investors or customers who have commissioned a work-for-hire, for example.
Depending on the task or project at hand, owners may desire lots of details or they may only desire to see the bigger picture and ensure that progress is being made toward a desirable end. While stakeholders in the accountability tier are responsible for coordinating efforts to bring a vision to life, owners are responsible for clearly casting vision.
Our projects did not contain clear tiers of awareness, access, accountability, and ownership. This meant that communication timeliness and thoroughness were usually lacking.
A big reason for this was the ‘less is more mindset’ carried by senior leaders. In theory, limiting who was invited to the table was done under the guise of protecting teams from having to attend unnecessary meetings that were not relevant to them. In practice, however, it allowed decision-makers to advance ideas unchecked and uninformed, causing predictable hardships for excluded stakeholders once they were brought in.
Additionally, leaders remained dangerously indecisive, forcing them to present plans that would frequently deviate from their original state.
Making matters worse, they improperly assessed when the right time was to invite new people to the table. When new stakeholders were brought in, it was only after decisions involving their areas of expertise had already been made for them. Rather than contributing to a project’s success, these late-to-the-party players were relegated to fixing avoidable problems caused by fragmented communication.
It would have helped if, after identifying and assigning our stakeholders at the beginning of a project, we asked some critical questions of each group:
What specific information needs to be shared with this tier?
What might happen if this tier is not kept informed?
What might not happen if this tier is not kept informed?
How frequently should we communicate to each tier?
How often (if at all) do we need status updates from each tier?
How long might each team or tier-based task take to complete?
Who is responsible for ensuring that the information gets out to each tier?
What medium(s) will we use to share this information with each tier?
Will teams within each tier communicate using different mediums?
What is this tier’s expectation for communication frequency and detail?
How will we collect feedback from each tier to ensure ongoing clarity as the project evolves?
Doing these things would have helped to lift the fog that concealed clarity and would have ensured that the greatest number of relevant people had all of the necessary information they needed to make complimentary progress together.
It would have also limited the opportunities for personal offensive, frustration, and unstated grudges that we held against each other.
Less bugs, for sure.
Argenti, P. A. (2013). Corporate Communication (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Johnson, K. L. & Roloff, M.(2000). “Correlates of the Perceived Resolvability and Relational Consequences of Serial Arguing in Dating Relationships: Argumentative Features and the Use of Coping Strategies,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 17, no. 4–5: 677–78
Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy that specializes in workplace conflict and sexual misconduct. From tarnished rapport to squeamish conversations, Conflictish is on a mission to help leaders get their 'ish together.