Gossip and rumour are a part of everyday life, including in the workplace. And where communication is poor, or there is an absence of communication, you can be sure that rumour and hearsay will quickly fill the gap. The right communication, at the right time, can prevent a situation escalating by clearly stating the facts. People may not like what they’re being told, but this is better than being told nothing at all.
Communication, by its very nature, criss-crosses between individuals all the time, from side to side and up and down, and vice versa, within teams and across professions. And effective communication recognises and supports that. A by-product of effective communication is better engagement, something recent reports strongly recommend. Ambition 8 of Professor Bruce Keogh’s review of the quality of care and treatment in 14 hospital trusts is that: “All NHS organisations need to be thinking about innovative ways of engaging their staff.”
I don’t believe you can have engagement without good communication. I think of it in terms of having a conversation with someone – if you feel they’re not answering your questions honestly or fully, seem bored or distracted, clearly not listening, not volunteering information, not asking your views or anything about you, or they come across as patronising or dismissive – how does that make you feel?
The aim should be to encourage people to talk openly (and frequently) about all aspects of care practice, good and bad, so what works well keeps happening and what doesn’t can be addressed before it becomes an actual cause for concern. With the right communication things should never get to the stage where a complaint or whistle-blowing seem the only option. The goal should be proactive communication, not reacting to problems after the event.
Communication should support the Francis report’s call for openness that enables concerns to be raised and disclosed freely, without fear, and for questions to be answered, and transparency that allows ‘true information’ about performance to be shared. Proactive, carefully planned and implemented internal communication in particular can help to stop gaps in information, or misinterpretation, developing, which can give rise to rumour, conjecture and suspicion.
Seeping through a lot of what’s said about poor communication is the feeling that at some level organisations, senior managers and even line managers don’t really trust their staff or believe them capable recipients of information. This translates as making assumptions on their behalf or deciding what is best for them to know or not know, and generally communication that lacks authenticity and credibility.
Keogh was concerned to discover that some trusts briefed staff on what to say in focus groups and at listening events held as part of his review. Not only was this “inappropriate and ill-conceived because it reflects a less than open culture and was easily exposed”, it probably gave a worse impression of those trusts than anything negative their staff might have said if left to their own devices.
It can seem a scary prospect to do away with the ‘editing’ process between what actually happens and how it is communicated – increasingly commonplace with the rise in more immediate channels like live webinars and social media forums.
Handing over control of communication, trusting managers and other staff to make appropriate decisions in sharing information and how they use it, can require a leap of faith … but it also shows a commitment to openness and transparency and a real belief in what the workforce to offer. And more direct contact between individuals can address the sort of ‘significant disconnect’ between what senior management view as key risks and issues and the reality in wards and departments noted in the Keogh review.
So be brave, be honest and be forthcoming with information.