By Rob Morris
The art of good communication depends on listening for the real meaning under the surface of what people actually say. For example, when someone says “I have this friend with a problem,” most of us assume the ‘friend’ is about the same age, height, weight, hair color and blood type as the person we’re talking to. In my past as a consultant, I’ve identified a virtual dictionary of ‘code phrases’ found in most organizations. When people say “we need to clarify expectations” they usually mean “I don’t want to do what you want me to.” When they say there’s some confusion about “roles and responsibilities” they mean “other people aren’t doing what I tell them to.”
Ironically, one of the code phrases I have heard most often in the development world is “we have some communication problems.” People would come to me with communication issues, usually wanting technological or policy solutions: maybe we need a new project management system or weekly status reports? But in my experience, these problems were rarely about the means of communication. Think about it logically for a moment. Just ask yourself how quickly and broadly gossip or rumors travel in your organization? How well informed are your clients about project successes?
So, if some information travels well, it probably isn’t the communication infrastructure. No, most communication problems are actually caused by the content – or more specifically, fear about the content.
There are two primary components to most communication problems. The main problem is a basic insecurity so many people seem to carry. I feel it’s my duty at this point to reveal the Big Secret so we can move on: so many people are all secretly terrified that they will be unmasked for the frauds they know themselves to be (There may actually be someone out there who doesn’t feel this way, but I haven’t met them yet). There. Now you know. So, all these fine, bright people go around putting on a performance to mask this insecurity. Everyone does it, but we all do it in different ways and to different levels. The problem is we think other people’s performances are real, while we know ours is only a hollow shell. As a result, we go to great lengths to avoid saying anything that might reveal our secret.
This leads to the second problem, what I call magical thinking. This is the idea that we can change reality with the power of our mind. Now, very few people believe they can bend spoons with their brainwaves, yet when it comes to communication we all secretly believe that if we don’t acknowledge a problem it simply doesn’t exist. “Elephant? I don’t see an elephant.” Sure, the project is two months behind schedule, but maybe if we don’t tell the client a miracle will occur and we’ll catch up. Somehow, if we tell them it will become “real” but if we cleverly avoid the subject it simply won’t exist.
Alas, it just makes us look silly in the end. Like a five year-old learning how to lie or that person who comes to us saying “I have this friend…” we can all pretty much see through the flimsy excuses and missing updates. We may not know the details, but we know something is up. And, of course, this makes it worse because we fill in any gaps with the most creative (and usually unflattering) information we can think of.
So, if it feels like you’ve got “communication problems” at work, rather than spending a lot of money on new Blackberry’s for everyone or crafting a new policy statement on client communications, start at the heart of the matter and examine what information feels hardest to communicate and what you really think will be accomplished by concealing the information. Is it all simply a vain attempt to project some image of you or your company as perfect and superhuman? (Note: no living person is capable of and no sane person expects perfection.) Will reality change in any way or will it simply make matters worse?
Then focus on creating a culture of trust where people feel safe to come out of hiding. As a leader, be the first to confess your humanity. Set challenging, reasonable expectations and refuse to buy into the illusion of perfectionism. Reward risk, effort and honesty. Focus on learning, systemic thinking, and moving forward and refuse to place blame. Lead with honest curiosity about the potential in everyone and real compassion when people turn out to be human.
You’ll be amazed at how “communication problems” evaporate when people feel safe. There will always be “bad news” to report and it will never be fun, but we can easily avoid the inevitable train wreck when we think magical thinking can actually make problems disappear.