All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day. So why does communication always surface in the top 2 of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization? The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let's first look at the symptom form two vantage points.
The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day. All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. So it is a frustration when people feedback that there is "never any communication" going on. Wow, what a slap in the face.
From the worker's perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them. The messages heard are not consistent with the messages sent by the leader. There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a "gotcha" announcement.
The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let's take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.
1. Frequency - the span between communication on key issues is more tricky than meets the eye. The old rule of "the more the merrier" is really not the best policy. When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore. Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand. So what is the antidote? How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the volume control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language - often in group settings.
2. Boring Message - I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. So, all the information is given, but everyone is zzzzd out, so there is poor communication. The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you. Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning. I know the CEO of an organization that communicates with a deck of 50-100 PowerPoint slides. After the third slide, everybody in the audience is politely staring at the screen with the facial appearance of listening when in reality they are absorbing none of the information. The antidote here is to get the CEO some basic training on PowerPoint no-no's and make sure he doesn't sleep through the class.
3. Not what I said - Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning. It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, "The reason you don't understand me, is because I'm talking in English and you're listening in Dingbat!" During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog.
4. Too complex - In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time. Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time. Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation. Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible and consider the different learning styles of your audience.
5. Management Speak - Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call "management speak." They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow. Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message. However, be very careful to not "talk down" to people on the shop floor. They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them. Resist the temptation to "dumb down the message" so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language. Just because they do not know Latin is no reason to treat them as ignorant.
6. Shifting messages - It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different. Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent. Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect. The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.
7. Electronic Communication - Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication via online means. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication. It took me 300 pages in a book to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication. Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book). An example may help here. Most people view an e-mail like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong! When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting. Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous.
8. Communicating at the head level - Good communication does not occur at the "head" level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc. Real communication is deep in the gut. When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body. Don't make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.
Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people.