As social systems, organisations live from communication or, stated differently, there are no social systems without communication. Communication is also possible only within the social context. It can never be formulated by only one person. For Luhmann, communication is a three-step interaction and is composed of (1) information, (2) message and (3) acceptance. A structure that is apparently simple (as least in theory) between two or more players and nonetheless so difficult in the practical application. However, perhaps this lies in the fact that the internal psychological process during communication is, in reality, like a black box for us. Luhmann already thereupon stated that only language, written communication or perceptible facial expressions and gestures can be observed and everything which is communicated runs through “the filter of awareness“. Thus, communication can neither be observed nor controlled.
A young Manager once asked me what he could do about story-telling during a change process. I gave him the recommendation to not participate in the negative emotions, but rather to increase the positive ones – but, in any case, to participate in the communication because simply ignoring it doesn’t help. We can (and are supposed to) not prevent communication during change processes; it would simply also not be possible. Again and again, I observe that executives are very reserved in their communication and even more so the more rumours that are being communicated within the organisation. However, that is indeed the wrong route because if communication is not being maintained transparently, then this shifts only into non-transparent internal organisational network structures, but it continues to exist. Precisely decisions must be transparently communicated. If they are not transparently understood, this usually leads to negative emotions and makes the change seem confusing.
Consequently, we thus follow conceptually the three selection steps from Luhmann (see above) for a decision made during a change process:
During the first step, it is a matter of obtaining information for making decisions. In this context, executives utilise the knowledge and viewpoints of internal and external experts. But we really don’t know whether this information is complete – either because these experts are pursuing their own self-interests or because they do not communicate some things because they make implicit assumptions. But even the recipient, the decision-maker, could be unheedful during the minute of communication and thus not correctly interpret the information. We really don’t know for sure what the actual reason may be. But we can assume that decisions are made upon the basis of limited information – and just as we now try to formulate hypotheses regarding the relevant background information, those persons will also do this later when they find out about the decision.
During the second step, the information is disclosed. Place, time, form, etc. make a difference which is significant and not to be underestimated. Communication never takes place only on one cognitive level. As Manfred Wimmer said: “Emotions without cognitions are blind and cognitions without emotions are empty”. We may never forget this – particularly whenever we disseminate information via electronic communication paths. E-mails or video messages communicate emotions much less readily than the direct social contact. The recipient of the information must be able to emotionally follow the decision-making process in order to come to a decision himself regarding whether he will support the choice or reject it.
However communication is only then created during the third step, the assumption, because now the information is received by the employees and they discuss it. Thus, they themselves become the communicator. How they communicate this information depends on with what emotions they have received the decision and what experiences they personally associate with it. Executives and change agents oftentimes have the highest degree of anxiety about this step in the process; the anxiety of not being able to control this process (because it is also uncontrollable). Thus, they avoid communication which, however, blocks the process even much more.
In this context, I often ask myself: What are we even afraid of? Are we afraid of having to justify our own decisions? Are we afraid of conducting a dialogue about our decisions? But this is actually not the main issue at all. Communication is successful when communication continues to be communicated – and this emotional connection can be expressed either in approval of the idea for change or, precisely just as well, via scepticism or rejection of the idea for change. Either way, the emotional connection generates the “dialogue of change” and this dialogue only then enables us to collectively work on the change – everything else is gridlock and there can be no change during gridlock.
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