Whenever I hear people say “they don’t understand”, or “they don’t listen”, I’m often reminded of an old maxim I learned many years ago, that when you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.
It’s my contention that when we communicate, the communicator is Accountable for both their own behaviour, and that of the listener. Thus, it is insufficient to blame the listener if or when something goes wrong.
Just so we can be clear, let me first define ‘Accountable’ and ‘Responsible’. Those who are Responsible actually complete tasks. The Responsible person is responsible for action or implementation. Responsibility can be shared or delegated.
Those who are Accountable are ultimately answerable to the activity or decision – just ask Sepp Blatter. This includes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ authority, and veto power. Only one Accountable person can be assigned to an action, and Accountability can’t be delegated.
If we accept that definition of Responsibility and Accountability, then only the communicator can be Accountable. Both the communicator and the listener have Responsibility, but only the communicator has Accountability.
When people communicate, they think about what message they want to pass on. In their mind, their message is clear. Because we haven’t (yet?) mastered telepathy, that message then needs to be translated into a communicable form. To communicate, we use words – both spoken and written – as well as pictures and graphs. We might use pictures or graphs. Consciously or unconsciously, we supplement our spoken or written message with our tone and pace of voice, our gestures and facial expressions, and our choice of clothing and grooming. We also choose the medium for our communication – perhaps email, or PowerPoint, or documents, or posters, or videos, or face-to-face, or webinars. We also choose whether our communication is going to be one-to-one or one-to-many.
We do much of this based on our mood, upbringing, personality, and thinking preferences.
When we are on the receiving end of a communication, we receive the message encoded in its medium, and through the prism of the conscious or unconscious choices of the original communicator. We then equally decode it based on our mood, upbringing, personality, and thinking preferences.
The receiver then usually, but not always, responds in kind, becoming the communicator and the other person the listener.
There is a lot to go wrong in this cycle of encoding and decoding thoughts.
Communication becomes even more difficult when you factor in the peculiarities of memory. The primacy and recency effect (where you remember the first or last message you hear), the repeated message (like three-word political slogans), the shock message, and the one where you remember messages you never heard, but that sound plausible because they’re similar to ones you have heard.
Everything up to this point has been proven by readily available research. Many of you might be reading this article saying “nothing new there, Kevin”.
But if we are all aware of these facts, then why do so many people, when they are communicating, either refuse to acknowledge or forget that the person who is Accountable is the one who wants to get the message out? The one who wants to change people’s behaviour? The one who wants the business case approved, or who wants to reduce the risk that new systems will have patchy or low adoption?
I ask myself this in frustration when, over and over again, I see and hear people not taking the time to think about what they want people to feel, think, and do as a result of being exposed to a communication. They don’t think about the key message, or how often they should repeat it, or the channels they should use, or who should be seen delivering the message. Is it a senior person? A peer? A technical expert? A person with charisma? (They need not be mutually exclusive.)
Further, they also forget to think about measuring the impact of their communication, either by simple paraphrasing in one-on-one communications, or by using surveys to understand the impact of one-to-many communications.
What tends to happen most often, over and over again, is the dismal recourse to email as the exclusive channel of communication. Or the use of emails and a staff meeting where ‘questions can be asked’. Even when a communication strategy has been thought through and has a reasonable budget, I often see a concentration on, and a satisfaction with, creating outputs rather than outcomes.
From experience and our own research, I can say that poor or non-existent communication strategies always result in low levels of adoption of new behaviours, or poor adaptation to changing circumstances.
So here are a few tips on communicating during change.
- Determine who your stakeholders are and group them by what topics you need them to take action on. In some cases, you may deliberately want them to take no action.
- For each topic of communication, think about what you want each group of stakeholders to think, feel, and do about the topic.
- Consider their personality, work and life experiences, biases, thinking preferences and tailor the nature of the communication accordingly including the choice of channel.
- Consider whether you need to approach a topic in stages to introduce and clarify the topic before trying get action to be taken.
- Consider who would be the most believable or trusted, or even most likely to be ‘obeyed’ and send the message from them.
- Consider how messages can be seen as emotive by the recipient. Find out the ‘what’s in it for me?’
- Socialise important documents such as a business case with key stakeholders before important meetings.
- Consult with your stakeholders.
- Consider what symbols can be used to tie all the messages together; this is very powerful in advertising and can work for you too.
- Work out how to measure the impact of communications and tweak the strategy and plan as necessary.
- Use different strokes for different folks. We are not all wired the same.
- Emphasise what has ended.
- Use emails and expect to succeed.
- Cut and paste your last communication effort even if it was successful. Different environments with different people require different strategies even if the differences are subtle to the untrained eye.
- Use only one-way communications.
- Tell people what to do unless you are in a dire crisis or in a command and control environment where how committed people are to change is not a consideration.
- Set and forget your communication if the change is over a long period of time. Take the effort to refresh it.
- Forget to celebrate successes along the way.
Getting communication right can be difficult because of the complex array of filters that distort, replace, and eliminate our key messages to any group of stakeholders. However, it is one of the more powerful weapons in driving people to adopt new behaviours or adapt to new circumstances. Don’t fall into the trap of eschewing your Accountability for the outcomes, concentrating only on your Responsibility for the outputs.