Why communication is key to happiness, performance, and success.

Radek Wianskowski vierkant
Radek Wiankowski
Dec 17, 2020 · 5 min read
Why communication is key 1

by Edwin Stoop of Sketching Maniacs

Those who worked with me most probably had the chance of hearing me, at some point, say:

“At the root of all issues and challenges lies bad, or the complete lack of, communication.”

For a long time, this statement was relatively intuitive, but as I gained knowledge and experience, I think I am ready to explain it, and back it up with some reasoning. It is, however, important to mention that I will be using the research of others to prove my point.

The three types of organisations

If you aren’t familiar with Ronald Westrum’s “A typology of organisational cultures”, it is a genuinely profound read. In his work, Professor Westrum used the information flow within an organisation as a proxy for indicating the type of culture that dominates in a given environment. Although one might argue that said approach flattens the concept of the organisational culture to a single dimension, I still believe that communication is the common denominator for all other characteristics of an organisation’s culture.

The classification best described by the table below:

Why communication is key 1

Table from the original paper by R. Westrum

How It Impacts Happiness

Having looked at the system created by Professor Westrum, I very quickly concluded that I had come from a pathological organisation, spent time working for a bureaucratic one, and finally made my way to a generative one. And I immediately noticed a tight coupling between the culture and how I felt about my work.

To understand how the culture impacts happiness, we should start with the statement that people, in general, are good and want to do good. I would be brave enough to conclude from this, that we naturally want to solve problems which we encounter or notice.

I’ve seen good engineers who tried, many times, to deliver the message about problems which they noticed. But after having been continuously penalised or, in the best case, ignored, they grew apathetic. Instead of being passionate and full of initiative, they became unhappy and resounded to executing their tasks with merely acceptable levels of quality and performance.

But there is much more to the impact on performance and success.

The link to performance and success

Westrum’s paper goes on to prove that organisations whose culture can be described as generative perform better than those characterised differently.

For one, information flow is necessary for any learning to take place. Without the feedback about the impact of a decision or behaviour, we will be unable to take corrective action to prevent any undesired consequences in the future.

Therefore, the way an organisation reacts to a message about a problem will dictate whether the finding will be turned into an improvement, or left unchecked to cause more harm. Using this perspective to look at the characteristics of the three types of cultures will let us quickly understand the following scale of reactions:

Why communication is key 2

Figure from the original paper by R. Westrum

If we consider that by moving from left to right, we also move from worse to better, it will not come as a surprise that it is the generative organisations which turn towards the right side of the spectrum.

As an example, the paper mentions a hospital which, after detecting a problem with a medical procedure, reacted with an inquiry and full transparency. That, contrary to what many might expect, did not harm the hospital’s reputation or performance. Instead, their patients were not only understanding but also impressed.

Accepting our mistakes and implementing a global fix or launching an inquiry will reassure those around us, that we are devoted to improving quality.

Beyond the Westrum model

If we look at the “Lean Startup” methodology described by Eric Ries in his book of the same title, we will find the principle “Build-Measure-Learn”. We implement it by following the process:

  • Formulate a hypothesis
  • Realise the solution described in our hypothesis
  • Gather feedback
  • If the solution yields expected results, persevere, if not, pivot

The key to a successful implementation of this approach is the gathering of the feedback. Without the return information, we cannot make the right decision whether to invest further in our solution, or whether we should be thinking of a new hypothesis.

A similar approach can be found in the Cynfin framework, developed by Dave Snowden and first described in a paper published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2007.

In it, the authors describe five decision-making domains in which leaders operate:

  • Disorder, when it isn’t yet clear in which of the following domains are we operating
  • Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious
  • Complicated, in which the said relationship can be found, but the process requires expertise
  • Complex, in which the relationship between the cause and effect is only known in hindsight
  • Chaotic in which the relationship does not exist

In the current day and age, that is one of almost unobstructed flow of information, services and products most businesses operate in the Complex domain.

In this domain, the authors argue, leaders must fall to an experiment based style, which they describe as “probe-sense-respond”. This approach, however, relies entirely on feedback. And that information flow is in very many cases a direct outcome of how effectively we communicate.


In my work, I have the privilege of working with various customers. Having the technological expertise, I get to consult those customers on how to develop their technical solutions and capabilities. But what I often see is that it isn’t the technology that is the obstacle between them and their objectives. More often than not, it is the culture. And culture, I truly believe, comes from communication.