top view photo of people near wooden table

Effective communication

I had the privilege to host a gathering of some of my peers from around my department at work this week. I got to pick the topic, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask a group from a mix of teams how we’re doing from a communication standpoint. This is always interesting, because, as Mark Horstman would say, communication is what the listener does.

As we went through the feedback, a couple of themes were apparent to me.

  • Communication through a hierarchy is inherently flawed. It’s like the old game of “telephone”, where something is whispered in the ear of a person at one end of the line and, when the message gets to the other end, it is completely transformed. A leader can say “I wish we could use less tape” and it gets to the other side of the org chart as “the leader has banned tape of all kinds”. It’s human nature, but incredibly destructive if used unwisely. I have seen it done well one time, which was when the message was preprogrammed with slides for the managers and intro video done by the leader. Without those guard rails, many things are left to chance.
  • A message cannot be repeated enough. Often, in corporate America at least, an email is sent off and it is presumed that everyone read it, internalized it, and acted on it. We all know it isn’t true, but it’s easier to pretend that it is. Even if the person read it, it’s likely that they didn’t fully understand. The old adage is that a person needs to hear the message seven times to make it stick. That seems about right. Getting the listener to repeat the message can accelerate the process.
  • Too much information is detrimental. How often have you sat through a really long, detailed presentation, only to forget half of it? How good were the notes you took? Do you even know what that 3rd bullet meant? I run into this all the time. Boiling a topic down to the important bits in business communication is a skill that should be celebrated more.
  • Working from home requires more intentional communication. Several team members really liked that their managers had taken more time for all-hands or group meetings. They also noticed that they had to take care to share more information than they had in the past, since they didn’t bump into people in the hallway anymore. My observation is that this is a positive, becuase using group chats creates open access to information, where the information was shared more unevenly in the office because of the organic nature of it.
  • There is never enough communication. This might seem counterintuitive, as I just said too much information is detrimental. However, the right level of communication, shared through multiple venues and repeatedly, in combination with on-demand data sources like dashboards, chat, and intranet-style posts can be really powerful. Even with all of the intentional communication improvements, we still can improve.

None of these observations are particularly new or surprising. However, it serves as a good reminder that communication is a constant need and requires maintenance on a day-to-day basis. If we take the time to focus on how we communicate, we can increase our effectiveness as leaders. This, in turn, increases the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. It’s a great outcome when everyone is on the same page and engaged.

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