Trying to improve communication by sharing more and more information is likely to backfire, according to Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird. Effective communication is aimed at creating shared meaning, structuring decision making, and coordinating leadership activities, not just transmitting information.
Church leadership teams often struggle with communication because they don’t understand what communication truly is. When communication is seen simplistically — as the transfer of information from one place to another — teams don’t give it the attention needed to communicate effectively. Instead, teams try to mitigate their “communication” problems by spending more time and effort exchanging information with one another, even though research show that focusing on doing so yields few results beyond members being on the same page.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, studies show that increased information exchange does not relate to better leadership team performance. Our own research indicates likewise: the leadership teams that “communicated more” to exchange information did not perform as well as other teams that communicated to collaboratively make key, strategic decisions and coordinate important leadership activities.
Communicate to create and share meaning.
Higher-performing teams adopt a fuller view of communication. They see communication as human interaction, responsible for far more than transmitting information to one another. Communication creates and shares meaning, and it constructs social realities, structures, and institutions — such as churches, teams, and boards — that are then coordinated and actively managed. As one professor affirms, “When we communicate, we create, maintain, and change shared ways of life.” Viewed this way, communication is the very thing that births, structures, and shapes teams, including senior leadership teams. It is the very thing that develops and molds churches and all their organizational dynamics.
Good communication practices can make a team great.
The good news: If you see things differently, you will do things differently. The quantity or quality of information exchange within a team doesn’t make much of a difference on our teams. So, if your leadership team is healthy, it’s not simply focused on getting the right information to the right people. Instead, it is focused on the impact of its interactions on creating the team’s reality. In fact, when we asked team members what made their team great, the response almost always pointed to their communication practices. Pastors mentioned notions such as “there’s safety to talk about anything,” “we work tougher every day,” and “we met for two days and knocked a bunch of stuff out.”
The better news: If your team needs improvement, simply changing the ways you interact is a great place to start. Your interaction does far more than getting information to the right places at the right times or getting everyone on the same page:
- When you make key decisions, you create and shape your church’s culture.
- When you pray (or don’t pray), you’re shaping everyone’s understanding of and relationship with God.
- When you develop, shift, or label positions, you’re shaping the identifies of your staff and congregation.
- When you deal (or don’t deal) with conflict, you’re making your team healthy or unhealthy and setting an example of how to do (or avoid) conflict resolution.
- When you cast vision and determine future ministry direction, you’re establishing (not just communicating) vision for your ministries.
- When you evaluate the performance of programs and people, you’re identifying and solving problems.
- When you make personnel decisions, you’re determining who should be involved in key decisions that will further affect the church.
- When you meet, you’re establishing the team’s purpose, regardless of what is written in your staff manual or even your bylaws.
Communicate to create a new reality.
When your team interacts, you’re shaping your team, staff, congregation, and church. Seen this way, communication is not a thing that teams should pay attention to; it is the thing that accounts for the health and effectiveness of a team. Fundamentally, the primary work of a team is communication that creates a new reality. Interaction. Talk. And if our work is to be, as Tim Keller suggests, “rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, to thrive and flourish,” then we must focus on what is being created through our interactions and how we can best interact to create thriving teams and flourishing churches. To focus on creating a new reality is to focus on communication.
This material is excerpted from Teams that Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2015) by Ryan T. Hartwig and Warren Bird. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.