Implicit communication: the dos and don’ts

Implicit communication: the dos and don'ts

September 17, 2013

Implicit communication can have a huge impact on your organisation. After all, there’s a world of difference between what we say and do.

In a call centre, where the customer is king, new employees are trained intensively to understand customers’ needs, while regular communication campaigns reinforce the value of good customer service, writes James Simons.

And yet a closer look reveals agents being assessed on how fast they conclude their calls; team managers monitor the length of incoming calls and the lack of a customer call back option forces irate customers to chase agents for answers.

Do you see the rub? How can employees believe management is serious about customer service when their processes and supporting systems prevent them from being able to put the customer first?

Implicit communication is the term that has been coined by the authors of 100% Consistent, a new book on the subject that highlights the role of IC in this important topic.

It refers to personal behaviour, the way resources are allocated, the way things are governed or structured and the specific physical environment. All of these things communicate something about what is really considered important in an organisation, and may not tally with what is actually being said.

They can be communicated individually or collectively and often without regard to how others are receiving the message.

There might even be a decision not to communicate at all but that in itself tells employees something. The messages we ‘give off’ can be even more powerful and effective as explicit communication.

Ilse van Ravenstein, head of Dutch internal communication agency Involve and co-author of 100% Consistent, is acutely aware of the inconsistency between what we promise and what we demonstrate.

“Think of the company director who talks about ‘sustainability’ and ‘working green’ only to travel to road shows in a large petrol-guzzling car,” she says.

“Or the senior executive who preaches supportive leadership but only frees up one hour a week to speak to employees. It’s not rocket science – but it really makes a difference.

Ilse adds: “People pick up on implicit signals; and even more so when you shine a spotlight on them through your explicit communication.

“They notice the car, or the fact that the manager no longer shakes hands or wants to trim the training budget.

“Implicit communication exist all around us and forms a fundamental part of the culture within an organisation. If you want to establish a change in culture you will need to focus on what is being communicated implicitly.”

Practical tips

With this in mind, Ilse has created the Consistency Check, a model that organisations can use to bring all these different elements together.

Based on professional experience and insights from academic studies, the model provides a step-by-step guide to implicit communications and offers practical tips for organisations looking to adopt it. Key to this is consistency of approach – or practicing what you preach.

“Get this bit wrong,” says Ilse, “and you risk a loss of credibility and trust. Worse still, people won’t commit to your organisation, won’t want to work there and won’t want to perform.”

On one level people are receptive to simple messaging; they read internal newspapers, look at the company intranet and attend weekly meetings. At the same time they are receiving the more subtle signals that are often left open to interpretation or full of ambiguity.

“Each person who gets a message probably has her or his own interpretation, based on the context brought to the message,” adds Ilse. “If you’re suspicious of the sender, for example, you may well have a sinister interpretation.”

But with so much left unsaid or open to interpretation – how can you tell if your explicit/implicit communications are aligned?

“You can ask people whether they think an organisation is serious about a specific topic, but the real test comes from asking them how trustworthy they think an organisation is,” Ilse says.

“By being consistent and thinking more carefully about the messages they send out through both explicit and implicit communication, organisations can go a long way to establishing a culture of trust.”

Quick tips: Dos and Don’ts

• What we say and what we do will always be interpreted together
• If what we promise (explicit communication) and demonstrate (implicit communication) don’t match it will lead to loss of credibility and trust
• You can’t influence how employees interpret all signals on a topic but you can influence a lot of the signals
• Add implicit communication to every communication plan and see the difference in your organisation
• The Consistency Check is a useful tool to check how consistent you are on specific topics and how you can become more consistent.