Communication is a two way process.
Leaders who consistently tell without taking into account feedback get one of two things. A subservient group of people doing as they are told, or a frustrated group of people who are negatively disposed to much of what they are asked to do.
In the former case, the organisation loses the capacity to think, becoming most evident when the leader moves on. In the latter case the organisation has a destructive, secretive, back-biting culture that takes years from which to move on. Many large organisations suffer from both when charismatic, powerful leaders consciously or unconsciously suppress debate.
“Going forward. we will be pushing the envelope on customer intimacy. A world’s best practice continuous improvement process of customer alignment is what this organisation is about. The empowerment of employees to fulfil our mission of ‘Customer first, always’ will be driven by living our values of integrity, openness, commitment and fairness.”
The “elevator speech” fraternity which insisted that one must have the ability to render complex discussions and arguments into as many words that one can speak in an elevator ride up a few floors with the CEO to their office, may have something to answer for here.
CEOs, business commentators and politicians alike rely so heavily on buzzwords that it is almost impossible to understand the topic about which they are talking without subtitles.
With reference to the paragraph above, typically uttered by a CEO, if I was an employee, a shareholder, a regulator, or just an interested bystander, I would have no knowledge of what business the CEO was in, what was different about their organisation and specifically, what they were doing about their opportunities.
It is not effective communication. It is mindless babble that a fifth grader could put together after watching a few episodes of business news.
When one speaks and the audience is attempting to assess whether we are sincere or not about what we say, they take into account the following:
- The words we use – i.e. the content and knowledge of our topic, counts for 7 percent of their perception.
- How we speak, including our tone, pitch and inflection, counts for 35 percent of their perception.
- Our visual presence, our body language counts for 55 percent of their perception.
Some examples of incongruence between words, tone and body which scuttles our message are:
- Talking about open communication and frowning at difficult questions (body language versus words).
- Reading from a speech in a monotone about how excited we are about the future (body language and tone and pace of voice versus words.
- Saying I take full accountability for an error without expressing what the consequences of the accountability entails (words versus words.
Another continuous source of incongruence is not doing what one says one will or what (as a leader) one says is very important for us all to do. As simple an act as not insisting that the electrical cords trailing from the projector to the power point are taped down to eliminate a trip hazard in the room in which one is presenting on safety can destroy one’s credibility about the message. The result is people switching off to one’s words.
Communication which is infrequent runs the risk of surprising people. Not because they were not told, but because they only half listened the first time, or perhaps they were not there or because they deleted the email, or threw out the memo when they received it without reading it. This is what people do. Communicators need to understand it, get over it and plan for it.
Advertisers understand it. They understand and utilise the concepts of reach (how many people will I reach) and frequency (how many times will a single person be reached) in every campaign.
Organisations which want to get a message to their employees must use the same principles to be successful. The more important the message, the more they need to reach a single person to reinforce the message. The bigger the organisation, the more times they need to repeat the message to ensure they get everybody a minimum number of times.
Have you heard of the organisation that sent out a communication about major changes in the organisation leading to retrenchments by email? Hear about the one that did it by memo or letter? I think we all know of, or have worked in, an organisation that has committed this sin. The leaders usually commit the sin of incongruence whilst doing it by saying that the employee’s welfare is uppermost in their minds.
These types of messages affect people’s lives, not only by the eventual outcome but also by the uncertainty involved. People need to not only hear the words, they need to see the body language and hear the tone and pace of voice to further test the communicator for congruence. They need to ask questions. The medium of email and/or memo are wrong. The message immediately becomes incoherent.
Every message to every constituent must be evaluated for what the communicator wants the audience to feel, think and do. The medium must be analysed similarly to ensure that messages are coherent in the mind of the receiver.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Leave things unsaid and people will speculate to fill the gap. Rumours abound and gain credibility, sometimes of a higher order than the truth.
When there is bad news to give, give it. When there is uncertainty be definite about what the uncertainty is. Be clear about when the uncertainty is expected to end. Be clear, as soon as you can about the criteria being used to determine how the uncertainty will end and what the alternative consequences will be for groups of individuals.
The corollary of incompleteness is always someone else, less informed, completing the communication at a time and in a manner which makes life worse.