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Why Does Context Matter to Every Individual and Organization?

Issue 54: May 5, 2022

In times of uncertainty and ambiguity, context is essential to providing clarity in communications and interpersonal relations – both personal and professional. It has become a challenge to understand others when there is an abundance of misinformation and personal spin on the facts. Even more confusing, history is recorded according to the historian’s context, which can be a highly personal interpretation. Worst case, the lack of context obscures information.

What does context have to do with organizational performance? First of all, one could argue that context is everything. Context is literally (according to Webster) the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. Simply stated, context throws light on communications, situations, and plans, clarifying intentions and goals. Context can also be inspirational prompting one to seek out the information that informs context which can lead to the identification of opportunities that weren’t previously known.

During the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting last week in San Diego, we had the privilege to interact with Edmund Gordon, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology, Emeritus at Yale University and the Richard March Hoe Professor of Psychology and Education, Emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University. Professor Gordon recently celebrated his 100th birthday, a milestone that represents a life of experience and wisdom. As an esteemed educator and highly respected researcher, Professor Gordon has watched society evolve and has been an advocate for change. He spent several hours sharing his wisdom and we will share one of his most impactful and thoughtful statements. With some paraphrasing on our part, “Context comes from knowing, knowledge creates context, and context begets action.” Ultimately context helps make sense of things and informs thoughts, responses, and actions. Only by knowing and having knowledge (context) do we truly understand what actions need to be taken.

  • Context can be historical; what happened and why.
  • Physical context can influence how a workforce feels, which influences how they perform.
  • Cultural context provides insight into the beliefs and values of an organization.
  • Situational context relates to why events (change, market orientation, strategic plans) are happening and how the circumstances of an event affect stakeholders.

All these factors, when taken into account, bridge gaps between leadership and management and the workforce to avoid misinterpretation.

Context can also relate to “customers and their changing needs, the contours of economic change, an organization’s IT infrastructure, relationships within the organization and who get on well, the vulnerability and safety needs of staff, current ways of working, silo structures, location, hierarchy, governance and decision processes, and exposure to regulatory requirements,” according to authors Fin Goulding and Haydn Shaughnessy. They add, “An organization might find, as it explores its context, that the set of activities might be different, but we think it won’t be vastly different. The idea of a generative operating model denotes simply that we learn about our needs, possible responses, and actions to be taken from exploring our context. We then need a mechanism to learn the skills that enable us to make the right changes.”

Context in Communications

To be able to intelligently navigate the vagaries of language, ideas, beliefs, and values, we need context. One person’s truth can be another’s deception. Context provides clarity. Think about it. Communications can be a field of landmines. Writer Darren Stevenson says, “The kinds of things we think about or say, or assert, or deny are largely determined by our purposes, and how we understand or abuse the context in which our ideas and beliefs are reflections of our relationships with others. All truths are relative to the contexts we must actively seek to assert or deny. Contexts are both powerful and largely invented.”

Paidrig Ó Tuama is a poet and leader in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. Conflict resolution can teach businesses the importance of communications context. He believes that language can sometimes be limited because of the lenses through which you read and interpret it. He says, “When somebody says something, try to figure out and ask did I hear them correctly? Because sometimes we hear what we want to hear, and we might be completely wrong.” Consider our previous newsletters on Shared Knowledge, Communication Theory, and Active Listening. We solidly agree with Paidrig and deeply believe we must remove our biases to accurately hear others.

If communications are not clear Ó Tuama recommends to unask the question or saying it in a different way. He adds when you tell someone else an opinion and they misinterpret it, chances are they are listening to themselves. Without context, communications become free for all which explains common misunderstandings and misinterpretations. “The complication is that life comes with no trigger warning. Things happen out of the blue. Something happens, and suddenly, with no preparation, you find yourself in the middle of something that you didn’t wish to happen,” he says. Context can defuse a situation or communication. He adds, “Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing.”

Here are a few tips for communicating with context:

  • Find creative ways to include anecdotes and experiences to weave in context and increase comprehension among recipients. Seek to find where you and the individual or group on the receiving end have shared experiences, values, and knowledge. Use what you share as a starting point to develop context.
  • Communicate to the audience, not an imagined group of readers. Consider who your communications are aimed toward and be sensitive to how your language can increase the relevance of your communication and strengthen your audience’s understanding. Your word choices may have different meanings to your audience. Did you ever tell a joke that was hysterical to you but fell flat with those you tell?
  • Don’t overload with too much context that can lose your audience with too many details. Focus on the facts, presenting information in accessible, empathetic ways. And remember, what you believe is important may not resonate with those you are interacting with. Plus, they may not hold what you are sharing with similar importance.

Context as Organizational Construct

According to Corporate Citizenship, “The key to the future is understanding what we call the context – the trends, impacts, and relationships between an organization and the wider world. Analyzing the context can uncover powerful insights for innovation, which can in turn sustain long-term performance. A resilient strategy is one that is in step with an organization’s wider context, allowing the organization to thrive for years to come.” Context is a lynchpin of organizational strategy to gain support from all stakeholders to achieve goals. And this requires communicating in ways that reach all stakeholders clearly. We know listening is often inherently biased, and without understanding the why of how an organization operates, there will be fragmented interpretations and understandings.

Context in Planning

Wise words from a Businesswire report, “By using a purpose-driven approach to document, track, and monitor the “business” context of your organization before launching strategic initiatives, you can be sure your initiatives take the needs of your business stakeholders into account. This not only increases the chances of an initiative succeeding but also bolsters your relationships with key stakeholders.” Context in this sense is the importance of understanding the factors that impact your organization from various perspectives, including how decisions are made and what you are ultimately hoping to achieve and conveying in ways that recipients understand and support.

Leaders get into trouble when plans are made without explaining why. Context is the “why.” And context is critical to change. Molly Buckingham of the University of Bath states, “To support meaningful change, it is important to understand the present situation or business context.” In other words, why are you planning to change? Next, it is important to understand how the change will benefit stakeholders, providing context to what will be gained and what may be lost. Context makes the anxiety about change more palatable. Everyone needs to know why not just the how or a finished vision of the end goal. Buckingham adds. “Historically change has been viewed from one of two perspectives; a top-down management approach, or a bottom-up approach.” How the two perspectives align without polarization is the context to set the stage for change.

Context in Change

Reports state that 88% of change initiatives fail to deliver what they set out to achieve, according to Amy Walters of EY Professional Services Limited. The low success rate can be explained by so many issues, from poor communication, lack of commitment and resistance to change among the workforce. EY research with senior leaders and organizational change experts reveals five contextual factors to consider in making organizational change work.

1. Simultaneous Changes

Provide context for the environment your organization operates within. At 2040 we represent the context of the environment by setting a market orientation. A market orientation matched with a shared purpose is birthed from the context of the environment, market, customers, stakeholders, and the workforce. When planning and activating change, map out all simultaneous change initiatives occurring in the organization and the marketplace that impacts your success. Consider where they might overlap or contradict each other and anticipate what challenges might arise as a consequence. In this exercise, context provides the short- and long-term perspective needed to ensure change and transformation match one’s definition of success, whether that be a milestone or a complete transition. As humans are majorly short-term in focus, developing context in the organizational environment can be hard and challenging, but it becomes a must-have to avoid becoming another statistic reported by those that track change and transformation failures.

2. Organizational Culture

The report notes the role of culture in organizational change is all too often neglected. “In fact, it’s a core component which should be considered to boost chances of success: organizational change can’t happen without impacting culture.” The research notes two factors most often overlooked are cultural benchmarking and cultural icons. “Cultural benchmarking is the set of habits in an organization which dictates how things are done.” To avoid alienating employees, provide context for change that is aligned with the existing culture and values. Tap into the influence of cultural icons, and employees who embody what your organization stands for. Engage these key cultural icons around the change, get them on board, and get them to help make the change a success, all the while communicating the why about change and how it will benefit the workforce, customers, and the organizational culture. And do not forget the importance of helping employees with their own professional transitions, understanding what is lost, what is gained and what new expectations you have of them.

3. Pace of Change

“Change comes in all shapes and sizes, varying in both pace and scale, which together make up an initiative’s change momentum,” according to the report. The pace of change requires context. “For slow, large-scale changes, watch out for loss of engagement. This can be tackled with an effective communication strategy. By providing regular updates, people feel like they are being kept in the loop. Another issue with this type of change can be siloed working. To avoid this, leaders should refocus on the shared goals of the change and see the opportunities for collaboration which are being missed.” For a fast, large-scale change, consider 80% certainty to be enough to make a decision on a given topic. Encouraging this rule will help leaders to make decisions when it matters.

4. Track Records

Manage the context of past success and failure of change. “A change hangover is where the ghosts of changes past come back to haunt leaders in the present.” Our brains are hardwired to remember difficult emotional experiences and we suffer from anxiety when faced with change. Employee expectations are based on past experiences. “It’s inevitable that people will refer back to their most recent or most comparable experience when facing a challenge.” Successful change is dependent on shared purpose and understanding why change is necessary.

5. Types of Change

What is the context defining the nature of change? Is it restructuring, a merger and acquisition, or a cultural change? When it is systems change, workers need to be upskilled for a new playing field. If it is managing a change of ownership, transparency and trust are key in all communications. If you are restructuring, be aware that “neuroscience research shows that if something seems unfair, it will lead to a strong emotional response and feelings of hostility.” Provide context in open conversations to reduce fears about being treated unfairly. For mergers and acquisitions, a contextual, in-depth analysis of each culture will identify the cultural icons who can champion the change and desired future outcomes.
Practicing Context

At 2040 we have extensive experience helping clients untangle misunderstandings and missteps when introducing strategy and change without context. We have coached leaders, managers, and teams in organizations of all sizes to deconstruct how they communicate, interact with others, and introduce new ideas. Context is a crucial skill – a tool actually – to clarify the best-laid plans and gain the support of all stakeholders. Reach out to us … we have insights and practical guidelines to help you achieve your goals.

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