Deborah Mackin

Article Summary:

Guidelines for stronger communication in business.

Communication In Business: Why Bother Communicating?

Five first-line supervisors at a manufacturing plant sat in their conference room and remarked that this was the first time in eight years they were all together and able to discuss common concerns . . .

In the middle of a training series for a large institution, forty-six supervisors were asked whether they were meeting with their managers to discuss how to apply their learning. One raised her hand . . .

Fifty-six entry-level managers were asked to write down the long-range goals of their companies. None could complete the task . . .

In spite of the abundance of business bestsellers stressing the importance of organizational communication, the reality is that most organizations are falling short in promoting communication. The prevailing attitude of “why bother” still exists.

Experts tell us repeatedly that the attitude toward organizational communication begins at the top. If a CEO or president encourages formal and informal communication, these systems will “trickle down.” The opposite is also true. A president of a non-profit organization erected three doors between his outer office and his inner sanctum. Whether purposefully done or not, the message to employees was clear; unless it’s worth going through three doors, don’t bother me. Soon, this was the prevailing attitude among managers and supervisors.

The reverse can happen as well. An open door policy — attractive to more humanistic managers — can create many interruptions during a conversation that the employee with an appointment becomes discouraged. Five minutes of 100 percent attention is more valuable than 100 minutes of 5 percent attention.

By job definition, managers and coaches are teachers, problem-solvers, and facilitators. None of these activities can be performed properly without a constant, open flow of communication. Besides day-to-day communication about specific tasks, managers and coaches need to weave these significant topics into daily conversations with employees:

Succinct statements about the organization’s mission, values, and traditions. Studies show that story telling is one of the best techniques for transforming abstract philosophies into daily practice. Employees at Radio Shack will remember their President’s reaction to finding a piece of pizza on the floor far longer than any 50-word statement on the importance of store cleanliness.

Realistic, measurable goals. “If” as Earl Nightingale says: “winners are goal-setters,” it’s not fair for senior executives to be the only winners. Statistics show that less than 5 percent of people set goals and less than 1 percent write them down. The process of goal-setting itself promotes two-way communication with employees: What do these large goals mean for our department? Are there goals we’ve overlooked? Do our goals support our mission and values?

Well-defined priorities and payoffs. Alec McKenzie states in The Time Trap, “Being busy is easy; being effective is not.” Poor time management is the universal pitfall of most managers and coaches. As a result, no clear distinction is communicated about the differences between priorities (tasks that are necessary and urgent), payoffs (tasks that offer long-term reward or benefit), and time wasters (tasks that are easy, fun, or used to procrastinate from doing difficult “payoff” tasks). An employee who is encouraged to create a form or system to streamline a repetitive task learns about payoffs; an employee who stops a task to welcome a customer understands priorities.

Understandable performance expectations. The annual performance appraisal has been proven over and over again to be inadequate in transforming performance expectations into consistent, daily behavior. Too many workers have no clear grasp of the difference between satisfactory, unsatisfactory, and outstanding performance. When managers and coaches communicate clear, measurable standards of performance, workers spend less time “guessing” about what’s expected and more time achieving results.

Receptive feedback systems. While we may believe we control the flow of communication — usually from the top down — in reality we only control whether the flow is overt or covert. Workers who have no open avenue to express opinion will invariably find more subtle ways of doing so. Managers who fail to solicit feedback risk far more than those who encourage — and control — it. Harold Geneen in Managing told his senior executives that the only requirement from them was “no surprises.” He made it clear from the start that he wanted his managers to “bother” him with their feedback.

Managers and coaches know that communication is our method of staying linked to one another. We must “bother” to communicate in order to function. Our choice becomes whether to limit our communication to daily tasks and get by in isolation, or to expand the substance of our communication and excel as an organization.

Deborah Mackin is founder and president of New Directions Consulting, Inc. and author of teambuilding books, including the 2nd edition of the Team Building Tool Kit (Fall, 2007). As an international consultant and trainer for 20+ years, Deborah is a widely recognized authority on teams, quality service, productivity, and leadership. For more information, visit New Directions Consulting.

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