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The Importance of Communication in Nonprofit Management


I joined a friend for lunch the other day to talk about a course he is teaching on management and organization. I used the occasion to dig back into my files (I still have some paper files!) to look at one of my favorite articles from the Harvard Business Review - all the way back to March 1978: Zen and the Art of Management by Richard Tanner Pascale. I think the article still holds up. It foreshadows some of the wisdom of Jim Collins and his assessment of the importance of the team to any great organization’s success (or later fall from greatness).

It also speaks to some of my guiding principles of what distinguishes a high-performing nonprofit organization. One is my belief that leaders need to help their staffs adapt quickly and frequently to these changing times. People like trusted patterns. In today’s world they need to have the assurance to try something new. A second principle much on my mind is that nonprofit organizations ought to be great places to work, with meaningful personal and organizational accomplishments – impact ideally – and respect for people, their skills, and recognition of their contributions to overall success.

The article was written during a time when Americans were fascinated with the ascendancy of Japanese business and looking for lessons from their style of management. Today we think of Japan has trapped in a stalled economy and wonder if their non-confrontational approach has been a contributing factor to poor decisions. But I still think there is something here for us to consider. After the collapse of our economy in 2008, brought on in part by too many super-charged financial types, I think it’s time to challenge some of our assumptions about how American businesses are run and make decisions. For nonprofits, I believe it is possible to be business-like in running our nonprofit organizations without succumbing to the worst values of those who seek profits above all else.

Here are a few quotes from the article. As you read them substitute the word “nonprofit” for “Japanese” and see if it fits your expectations for a nonprofit organization.

A number of respected observers of Japanese ways had attributed their success in part to such practices as “bottom-up” communication, extensive lateral communication across functional areas, and pronounced use of participative- (or consensus-) style decision making that supposedly leads to higher quality decisions and implementation. .. A senior executive at Sony provided a clue. “To be truthful, he said, “probably 60% of the decisions I make are my decisions. But I keep my intentions secret. In discussions with subordinates, I ask questions, pursue facts, and try to nudge them in my direction without disclosing my position. Sometimes I end up changing my position as the result of the dialogue. But whatever the outcome, they feel a part of the decision. Their involvement in the decision also increases their experience as managers.”

The more significant finding is that successful managers, regardless of nationality, have certain common characteristics that are related to subtleties of the communications process.

Of course, there are many situations that a manger finds him [or herself] in where being explicit and decisive is not only helpful but necessary. There is a considerable advantage, however, in having a dual frame of reference – recognizing the value of both the clear and the ambiguous. … Much of the lore of management in the West regards ambiguity as a symptom of a variety of organizational ills whose cure is larger doses of rational specificity, and decisiveness. But is ambiguity sometimes desirable?

Ambiguity has two important connotations for management. First, it is a useful concept in thinking about how we deal with others, orally and in writing. Second, it provides a way of legitimizing the loose rein that a manager permits in certain organizational situations where agreement needs time to evolve or where further insight is needed before conclusive action can be taken.

Delivering oneself of the need to “speak the truth” often masks a self-serving sense of brute integrity. “Clearing the air” can be more helpful to the “clearer” than to others who are starkly revealed. Part of our drive from the explicit stems from the Western notion that it’s a matter of honor to “get the cards on the table.” This attitude rests on the assumption that, no matter how much it hurts, it is good for you; and the sign of a good manager is the ability to give and take negative feedback… It is desirable to get the facts and know where one stands. But it is also human to feel threatened, particularly when personal vulnerability is an issue… “You Americans are fond of announcing things,” said one Japanese manager in the study.

Next week I will explore some thoughts on adaptability.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Communications Management Nonprofits