Effective organizational communication: a commander’s perspective

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Albritton
  • 336th Training Support Squadron Commander
Have you ever wondered how a simple task within a squadron ends up completed in error or completely forgotten? I would venture to bet that 100 percent of the time that poor communication is the root cause. In today's Air Force, we can't afford to re-accomplish a suspense; our time, manpower, and budget is in limited supply. For those reasons alone, there can't be too much communication. Therefore, improving communication is an ever present theme within my squadron.

I don't mean send more emails - our organizations have to develop effective, and sometimes unique, ways to convey and receive information. The first step in any organization, at any level, is to foster a positive work environment that promotes the sharing of information, both positive and negative, up, down and across the organization.
A common top-level communication problem stems from management's assumption that because they are aware of some information, then everyone else is, too. Unless the information is deliberately passed and correctly received, information is not shared. It is the sender's responsibility to make sure the message is received and understood.

George Benard Shaw, an Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, once stated, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." This is so true in today's use of email - email is not a fire and forget tool. Email is an amazing tool that can be a crippling crutch if relied upon incorrectly. Remember the kid's game of Telephone or Grapevine, in which one person whispers a message to another and is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. This is how our email and voice messages can become if not shared correctly - full of errors that accumulate in the various retellings.

Here are some of my techniques to improve organization communication:

Unless absolutely necessary, don't send information via email directly to just one person - share the information with others. As a commander, I typically share all organizational email communications with my first sergeant, superintendant, and director of operations. If I send an email to a flight or section I make sure to include all officer, enlisted and civilian leadership along the way. This way, if someone is out or not familiar with the content, the email doesn't sit.

Never forward an email or for that matter, send an email, that doesn't clearly state why you are sending it, what you need, when you need it and how to let you know that what you asked for is done. Don't make the person at the other end have to work to understand the intent of your message. If you are forwarding a previously assigned task from above you, clean the message up so the next reader doesn't have to sort through the numerous previous messages to collect all the bits and pieces of what is needed - taking the extra two minutes will pay you big dividends later.

Take that extra minute to re-read an email, both before you send and after you receive one. Make sure you clearly understand what you are asking, telling or being asked. If unclear, pick up the phone, or better yet, walk over and talk to someone in person.

A negative to communicating via email is the ease of getting accustomed to it. Sitting at your desk, typing away is a habit that detracts from the benefits of personal interaction. Integrate phone calls and visits into your email communications as a means of follow-up.

In baseball, players yell out "I got it" when going for a pop-fly as to not run into each other. The same can be done in communication - reply to all or add others to an email indicating that you have the task. Always let those in the email chain know that the message has been received, understood and being worked. "Reply to all" is very helpful.

Remove all emotion from organizational email traffic. You're passing information, not sharing your feelings.

Learn how to use the various Microsoft Office Outlook tools that allow you to create read receipts and follow-ups through the "Flag for Recipient" function.