I have a communication exercise I do with groups. I distribute paper to every person, tell them to close their eyes, and then I give them instructions
about how to fold the paper, unfold it, refold it, and tear out a corner. I think the instructions sound specific. The participants think the instructions sound specific. And yet, people wind up with a huge variety of paper configurations. The point of the exercise? To prove that you don’t communicate as clearly as you think you do.
We all tend to assume that we are saying things in the clearest possible way. That everything that needs to be communicated is being communicated. “I told him exactly what to do.” “But we did inform her of the change.” We forget that communication has to be two-way. Information is unidirectional, but communication is about a relationship. You’re trying to arrive at a shared meaning. This isn’t just some touch-feely effort to create a happy culture. It’s a bottom-line necessity. In fact, I once read this quote in a report from Burson-Marstellar: “Internal communication is the top factor in determining a CEO’s reputation, which in turn is critical to shareholder value.”
In our communication workshops, we often ask “How many of your employees know your strategic goals for the next one-to-three years?” Frequently, the employees all stare back at us blankly, then turn to the CEO or ED. They have no idea what the leadership team is trying to accomplish; where they’re trying to get to, because no one’s talked to them about it. They can’t possibly work with the idea in mind of helping the organization succeed, because they don’t know what success looks like.
Communication needs to be part of the strategic plan. It’s an HR issue, yes, but it’s also a profitability issue, a motivation and morale issue.
A company needs to formulate a clear communication plan to actually measure the effectiveness of communication, and make adjustments as necessary. In doing so, they need to accept that miscommunication will happen, sometimes. That’s why it’s so important that everyone feels free to participate, ask questions and seek clarification. We tend to gauge the effectiveness of our communication on how we think we sound, or how clear we think we’re being, rather than on whether or not the other person clearly heard what we intended to communicate. But again, you don’t communicate as clearly as you think you do.
Some people even blame others for not understanding what they’re saying. Rather than trying to find a way to communicate that actually gets through, they just assume the other person wasn’t paying attention or doesn’t really care. If someone assumes that, and gets mad, others won’t feel free to ask questions and the communication strategy you established will be squelched.
Then there are people who solicit affirmation of their points in a way that shuts the other person down. Their idea of finding out whether or not the other person understood is to ask something like: “You got it? Do you understand what I’m saying? Can you repeat it back to me?” This again puts a blame for miscommunication on the listener. Neither of these approaches will have the impact on the culture or the bottom line you’re hoping for. A better way might be to ask the other person if what you said gives them any ideas about how they plan to solve the issue or begin the project. Their response will give you an indication as to whether you’re on the same page.
It takes work to cultivate a healthy, powerful communication strategy. But it’s worth it. And if you need help, call us. We do a great workshop.
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.