In a recent coaching session with a nonprofit executive director, my client and I were trying to analyze how she used her time. She was thinking through how to allocate more of her time focusing externally; meeting with current funders and prospective donors, and being more visible in the local press.
I had her describe a day when she set aside a few hours to make sense of her email inbox. And very quickly, the time bandit revealed itself.
While purging some emails and answering others, she started to get ‘slacked.’ (for some of you reading, it might be Microsoft Teams and not Slack). So she felt compelled to immediately answer the question posed in one of her 26 Slack channels.
Then, a few of the emails she was addressing led her over to Asana, the project management tool her organization uses to keep track of projects with multiple tasks owned by multiple team members.
Amidst all of this, my client received a text message from a board member who needed the password for the board portal. Somewhere in all of this my client’s high school age son called her mobile to find out what was for dinner.
The bandit was clear. She was being pecked to death.
IT’S TIME TO STOP THE MADNESS
We’ve all been on both sides of this. Perhaps you have a colleague who slacks to let you know that he sent you an email that requires a response, waits 15 minutes, and then shoots you a text to tell you that he slacked you to respond to the email he sent.
Or maybe you’ve done this to your colleagues?
We must stop this madness.
So many challenges inside an organization — from dropped balls (“I just didn’t have time”) to lack of trust (“Why was I not copied on that?”) stem from lousy internal communication.
The best way to stop the madness is to create a set of internal communications best practices about the use of different platforms, and a protocol for their use. You can create these within a 45 minute staff or leadership team meeting.
Whether you’re a nonprofit executive director, HR professional, or nonprofit staff leader, your time is precious. So because I want you all to devote the right amount of time to the right things, I’ve created a free guide that you can download that will set you up to have this conversation well and improve your team’s internal communication skills.
1. List All Forms of Communication
First of all, how do you decide what internal communication tool to use when you need to connect with a colleague or your boss or someone on your team? There are so many to choose from, right?
At the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (have you checked out the Lab yet? You really should!), we use the following tools:
- Slack (including Slack Huddles)
- Monday.com (for project management)
- Text messages
- Cell phones
- In person conversations
This might be a good start for you in filling out the protocol template; you may have fewer or more. Be comprehensive.
2. Reach Consensus on Each Communication Form
More is not necessarily better. If you decided to invest in Slack you must have determined it filled a gap that the other platforms couldn’t.
For my team, for example, Slack is a critical internal communications platform as we all work remotely. So for us, Slack replaces the quick stop by a colleague’s office to ask a simple yes or no question or to share a quick piece of information. Slack is also the home for team kibitzing (Yiddish for chit chat that is not work related).
As part of the discussion of each format, talk about how this communication would occur if you didn’t have this platform. These conversations help clarify the value of each.
3. Offer Two Examples: One “Spot On” and One “Off The Mark”
It’s always best to give an example of what is appropriate for each platform and what is not. Give an example of an “essay” question or one that requires deep thought and identify it as perfect for email, but totally off the mark for Slack. And when it comes to texting, be really clear with an example that would have to reach someone via cell.
4. Agree on Accountability
As a group, decide how to deal with a breach of protocol. Consider using compassionate truth telling in these circumstances. An “essay question” that comes to you via Slack? A simple link to the protocol. Or “This isn’t really a Slack Q.” Or maybe there is an emoji that has some humor to it that you can all agree to use, just to keep things lighter?
A FEW KEY GROUND RULES FOR EFFECTIVE INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
As you begin to flesh out your org’s internal communications best practices and start implementing them, here are a few ground rules to keep in mind:
Don’t get lazy.
Avoid using Slack or text to have people help you find things you ought to be able to find on your own. For ex: “I can’t find today’s meeting agenda. Can someone slack it to me?” Be honest – did you really look?
Avoid the “Can SOMEONE…?” problem.
Regardless of the platform, sending communications to multiple people to seek clarity or to get action today is typically a losing proposition. Re-read your communication. Is it specific and clear what you want and from whom?
Avoid sending the same message through multiple channels.
Covering all your bases may seem right to you but it takes time from everyone. You really need a response and the email was disregarded. So then a Slack to remind me you sent me an email. Maybe then a text for good measure. The goal is to minimize the incoming comms traffic for everyone. Set ground rules about response time (see next item).
For me, text is urgent or personal — that’s how I think about it. A text can feel more familiar so “Safe travels and have a wonderful vaca” or “No need to respond. Just thinking about you and your family. Check in when you can” OR maybe it is your 911 platform. “The website is down. On it. Should be back up within an hour”
Agree on a response time for each platform.
Nothing is more demoralizing than writing a thoughtfully crafted email outlining a proposal in an email to your boss and getting crickets. Set guidelines for what feels right and courteous all around.
Add internal communications skills to your performance reviews.
If you set ground rules and folks abide by them it should be noted. Same is true for the opposite. As I said from the get go, accountability to a strong communications protocol is foundational to an effective and respectful organizational culture.
Set outside business hours ground rules.
“My board chair sent me an email at 8:30pm — I just happened to be checking. The tone of it was pretty demoralizing and it actually ruined my evening.”
Been there? Done that? Or an email lands in your inbox on a Saturday — your executive director is on overdrive and has finally responded to overdue emails and the responses come with an overwhelming list of to dos. Most platforms have a scheduling function. Talk about using it and how to use it.
Be intentional about how you communicate negative feedback.
An email with a critical tone or negative feedback just sits with the recipient. It can be re-read and be especially demoralizing. Far too often we select a written platform because (let’s be honest) you don’t have to look someone in the eye. Sometimes you do need to write something – maybe you are angry or frustrated. So write it but DO NOT SEND IT. Revisit it 24 hours later and either, (a) delete it (b) change the tone to something totally different, or (c) set time to talk about this at your next 1:1 or pick up the phone.
Don’t Forget IRL.
“In Real Life.” You know, off-line. Once upon a time…
I write this knowing I do not do this often enough. Don’t forget to pick up the phone. I know you can see someone on Zoom and hear them too but there is just something about a spontaneous phone call. I’ll confess, I meant to call Trevor on my team on Friday. He told us in a zoom meeting that his cat is pretty sick, and I know Trevor and his wife are big cat folks. I could have slacked him and he would have appreciated it, but a quick spontaneous call (even if I got voicemail) would have been a much more thoughtful gesture.
Far too often when I suggest an exercise like this to a client, I will hear a response like, “I wish we had time to do this at our weekly leadership team, but there is so much information to communicate and timely issues to discuss.” I might also hear, “What a great topic for our retreat/offsite we are having later this year.”
But is it possible that the reason you don’t have time to do this exercise is because you are being strangled by internal communications coming at you all day every day from every possible platform?
Time is especially precious for nonprofit leaders. Imagine if you could get some of it back by injecting some real intentionality into your internal communications. Imagine how your team will feel when being treated with greater respect because there are ground rules you have co-created with peer accountability baked in.
And because I work hard to write with intentionality and respect for your time, I took some extra time to make this exercise easier for you with this template. I really hope it helps. Your clients and your communities deserve the most time you can give them.