Overcoming the Illusion of Communication

Most of us have experienced effective and ineffective communication in our businesses. We marvel, often in frustration, at the efficiency of the grapevine (perhaps now morphed into the Slack-vine). We wish to control our messages, but the informal network adds its meaning and velocity. We send out a message to employees, but forget to add the context. We task our leaders with seemingly clear directions and then watch in amazement as nothing happens. We hear excuses that they didn’t understand what we wanted. We hear “yes we will” to a plan in a meeting followed by the after-meeting in the hallway that leads to passive resistance and no action.

All communication comes to us through a filter. And the number of screens people possess rivals Instagram, but with higher stakes than turning our friends and family into puppies.

At times, business owners and CEOs ask their direct reports to cascade messages to employees. This happens unevenly, with some managers providing a verbatim directive, others adding their meaning which may not represent the intended message, others not passing along the word at all, and the result being confusion, misalignment, and frustration.

For the same owners and CEOs expecting to hear the facts about what’s happening in the company, the upward filter is even denser. One reason is that titles intimidate people, they don’t want to get in trouble with the boss or their peers, they don’t think the information is valuable enough to bother the boss with, or the boss doesn’t make it safe for people to bring him bad news. There are other filters, but this list gives us some context for why communication often falls short in our companies.

Steps Toward Effective Communication

There are several steps we can take to improve the odds that our messages are heard and acted upon by our teams.

Check ourselves

People are more apt to listen to and act on messages from trusted leaders. If we have professional credibility in an area, then our words also tend to be more credible. As a CPA, if I talk about a new financial model I will have more credibility than when I speak about giraffe gestation. Furthermore, if we are reliable, then people are more likely to believe we will follow through with support. If we have established rapport with people, they will tend to connect with our message at a different level than if they don’t know us. If we focus on what’s in it for the team, rather than mainly what’s in it for ourselves, the message will resonate more.

These traits of trustworthiness create a favorable context for people to hear and act upon our message. That doesn’t mean we wait to communicate until we have all the traits mastered, but it’s helpful to keep in mind if we find that the message has fallen short of our expectations. Often, a large part of a message is in the messenger.

Check our message

Communication tends to go through a process that starts with awareness, moves to understanding, acceptance, and then to commitment and engagement. Companies pay leaders for business results, so it follows that many of our messages jump to asking our teams to commit their time and effort to a project and engage as necessary to get it done.

We know in our heads where we need to go and often have a clear vision of the results. As the train engineer, we need our people to be on board for the journey, not standing on the boarding platform as we pull away.

Key to getting others on board is to make sure they are aware of our expectations, and we provide them with the opportunity to understand the message and its importance. After these two things are in place, we can enroll them in the effort, asking them to accept our message about what needs doing. Only after awareness, understanding, and acceptance are in place can we ask people to commit and engage.

Take care that the message you are sending is one that people are ready to hear. Expecting commitment and engagement to your cause with no preparation is a recipe for disappointing results. Most of all, the cynicism from the team that was left behind to wonder what they missed.

Test the message

Take an extra day or longer to test the message on leaders and employees and listen to their feedback. Engage employees with different titles, departments, and locations, asking them to keep the message confidential until you deliver it to the broader team. Make it safe for them to respond to what resonates and what doesn’t honestly. Adjust the message and re-test. This serves to refine the message and make it more useful. Importantly, it will also gain buy-in from the test group who will now have a vested interest in the message being successful after its delivered.

Deliver the message

Think about your culture and the best medium to deliver the message. The tendency may be to announce a change initiative or call to action regarding a new product, via email. Email is efficient, but the most important thing about your message is its effectiveness. It may mean a company-wide satellite town hall, with local employees attending in person. Effectiveness may require a broadcast message followed by in-person visits over the next two weeks. For all the technology that exists to enhance remote communications, face-to-face still wins.

Follow up and follow through

Over the following weeks, repeat your central message as many times, using multiple delivery media, as you can. If you are beginning to tire of your message, people are just starting to hear it. You may think that you are redundant, but your focus on your original message increases trust with the team. They will know that the next shiny object hasn’t diverted your attention, that you are serious about the message, and that you see it through to successful completion.

Takeaway: If it’s true that we each receive over 50,000 messages in a single day, then we are always competing for others to hear our messages. As leaders, we are responsible for making sure that people hear the things that are important to us and the business. By checking ourselves and our messages, and then testing, delivering, and following up and through, we increase the chances people will listen and act.