AUTHOR’S EDIT: Lets start with a few definitions…
Communication – the imparting or exchanging of information or news.
Clarity – the quality of being clear, in particular.
Dog - a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. It is widely kept as a pet or for work or field sports.
If you have been in a romantic relationship, worked for an organization, or have been breathing (ok, I know you have done that one), one thing you certainly have noticed is how differently people can communicate. Some are emphatic, while others are introspective. Some are animated, while others are subdued. Some are analytical, while others are subjective. But regardless of our style, communication is key to our interactions, our success and ultimately our survival. Then why are we – and organizations - so bad at it?
No communication at all – or perhaps worse a lack of clear communication - can be disastrous for both individuals and organizations. Imagine being in a foxhole with noise all around, no clear communication, and many disjointed conversations happening by everyone all at once. Imagine no one taking charge of communications. No one taking leadership, no one coordinating efforts, communicating or creating effective plans. Chaos ensues. And just like in the foxhole, chaos in an organization can lead to death.
So now imagine going to work every day and not knowing what is expected of you because it wasn’t clearly communicated? Having various people telling you multiple different things expected of you, or not knowing how you are going to be judged? Or worse yet, how you are going to be compensated? And yet this happens every day in almost every corporation in America. It never ceases to amaze me. One person’s idea of clarity is another person’s idea of muddle.
I contend that generally there is a direct correlation between clarity of communication within an organization and the organization’s financial performance. The clearer the communication, usually a stronger financial performance is seen in an organization. Why? Because try paddling a boat with everyone rowing their own direction because the captain isn’t communicating his or her instructions clearly enough. You get the picture.
The responsibility of clarity in communication is ALWAYS the responsibility of the communicator and not the receiver. In an organization it is generally the role of the leadership to set and then communicate the direction of the organization. As such, clarity in communication ultimately rests at the top of the organization. How could one expect an organization to be successful if senior management does not clearly communicate the decisions they have made to steer the company in a certain direction? Or perhaps senior management believes they are communicating clearly, but no one else seems to understand them. Isn’t it, therefore, management’s responsibility to make sure their message is being clearly received, and if not to take action to clarify their message before moving forward?
If no one other than senior management clearly understands or knows the strategic direction of the company, what the financial goals are, or what the short and long term market share goals are, then there is a problem. And by the way, what does short and long term mean? Is it clearly defined?
With the passing of every day, employees are making decisions that might unintentionally compete against the corporate strategy. But how are they to recognize if their actions are counterproductive to the company’s goals if they are unaware of the company’s goals, or if they do not understand the goals in the first place? This “murky” communication style will actually cause an organization to take many steps backwards, when in fact we are working to strive forwards. And this counterproductively is completely unintentional. People mean well, they just don’t know what “well” means because it has not been clearly communicated to them.
Communication in itself is interesting. Take for example the word “dog”. If I say “dog”, I might think of a big, burly Siberian Husky. But you might think of a cute, lap poodle. Both are dogs, but are radically different kinds of dogs. Connotation is very personal. Again, it is the communicator’s responsibility to clearly communicate and explain their perception of the words they are using.
Socrates understood this. He realized that the lack of clarity in the definition of terms is what almost ALWAYS leads to conflict. Misunderstandings cause wars, divorces, and also cause organizations to flounder and fail. Socrates was so convinced of this that he would require whoever he was conversing with to first agree on the definition of any of the key terms that they were going to use while speaking. And he did this prior to having the conversation. He found this almost always led to harmonious communications with no conflict.
So why does clear communication get overlooked so often? Perhaps it is because we do not consciously focusing on it, or maybe because we tend to think everyone has the same connotation of words that we have. Yet I submit that almost every single failure (and certainly conflict) in any endeavor can be traced back to an error in communication somewhere.
As an employee I have always hoped for clarity from my management. As a salesperson, however, I demanded it from my prospects. Why? Because without clear understanding of their issues and needs how am I to know if I have the best solution to help solve their problems? And if I don’t know that, maybe I do not have the best offering, and end up wasting my time and should have been pursuing a more reasonable opportunity. Time is money for a salesperson. Use it wisely.
Good sales people demand clarity. And will not move past a point if they are still unclear. They will also gain consensus by all constituents that the connotation of the words means the same thing to everyone before moving on. Clarity is key to all steps in a professional sales cycle. Next time you are asked to present a sales plan to your manager, and he/she asks a question you cannot answer, ask yourself, “Why didn’t I get more clarity on this issue from my prospect before my manager had to ask me?” Yet sadly so many executives in their own companies do not demand this level of clarity of themselves.
Here is just a glimpse at what poor - or a lack of clear - communication causes in an organization:
Competing Goals – a lack of clarity creates chaos, and leaves too much room for interpretation. In fact, crafty individuals will recognize this chaos and take advantage of it by pursuing their own personal agenda over the good of the company.
Lack of Accountability – people can always hide behind excuses for poor performance by simply claiming they weren’t aware what was expected. Or needed. Or what they were responsible for. Whatever the reason given, the point is that accountability disappears when clear communication breaks down.
Mistrust – clarity leaves no wiggle room. The word “shall” is non-ambiguous. Poor communication leaves a ton of room for interpretation. And it is in this room for subjective interpretation that people begin to mistrust one another. They begin to see people interpret things in ways that will benefit themselves first and foremost. I have seen numerous times when very talented, exemplary employees received poor job performance reviews because they were focusing on one thing, yet management wanted them focusing on another thing. Who is to blame for that? The employee? I don’t think so. But the damage is done, and the employee now will not trust management again.
Honest Errors – lack of clarity means people do not know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, or even why to do it. This leads to frustration, as people want to perform at high levels to feel good about themselves. Frustration leads to short cuts, poor attitudes and ultimately errors.
Apathy – a lack of professional, clear, consistent and honest communication leads an employee to feel unwanted. To feel as if the management team doesn’t value their input. Why? Because employees assume that even though management may not be clearly communicating to them, they are most likely communicating clearly to one another behind closed doors. And as such, the employee begins to feel as if he or she is not “in the inner circle”. You see, people ASSUME that if a person is a bad communicator, it actually means they are devious or can’t be trusted. It’s just human nature. See #3 above.
Islands – lack of communication causes people to go off and do whatever it is they think is best. In the absence of order is chaos, and in that chaos some people thrive or fail. The sad thing is that for the people who strive during chaos, no one can ever capture the things they are doing well and be able to share them as best practices with others. Why? Because no one is communicating. Islands appear, and self-centeredness takes center stage.
Poor Financial Performance – again, how can we succeed if we don’t collectively know what we are doing, how to do it, why to do it, who’s supposed to do it, etc.?
And the list can go on and on. So I challenge the executive leadership of every company in America to communicate clearly both in written and verbal form to each and every employee the following at a minimum, because they deserve it:
Job Description – clearly and with specifics tell us what our job is.
Explain how we are going to be judged, and include priorities. Don’t constantly change our goals without letting us know, then blaming us if they aren’t met.
Explain our compensation CLEARLY.
Explain the company’s goals and strategies to achieve these goals. BTW, also let us know how our roles fit into the bigger picture, and how we impact the strategy. Make us feel important and needed.
Clearly define a career path that we can expect to traverse if we perform satisfactorily at our current roles.
Be clear “down” as well as “up”. Too many managers spend their time being clear as possible to their upper management, but never give the people below them the same courtesy.
So, how many of us know the top three strategic initiatives our company is focusing on this year? If you don’t, and can’t find them clearly spelled out anywhere, maybe its time to think about why you are working there? After all, if the strategic imperatives and goals of the company are not important enough to share with the employees, why do we even have them? Just window dressing?
Clear communication wins. It is that simple. Clarity creates non-ambiguity. And it is in non-ambiguity that accountability rests. And only when we have a level of accountability that we can hold others and ourselves to can we expect advancement.
For a number of years I was privileged to work in the operating rooms of some amazing surgeons who had the awesome responsibility of another person’s life in their hands. Trust me when I tell you, clarity and non-ambiguity in an operating room is both a must and is demanded. Poor, unclear communication and people die.
Lets keep our company alive, and not let it die just because we have become too lazy to think that clear communication actually matters. Or worse yet, maybe we are overworked and have forgotten how to slow down and take the time to make sure our communications are clear.
And think of this – how many management teams are really comprised of unethical people? I would say very few are. Yet because of poor internal communication their employees unfairly question many management teams’ motives. So if you are in management, don’t do it to yourself. Take ownership and communicate clearly and consistently.
To live or die. Your choice folks. Communicate clearly and you will be surprised how much harmony, organization and peace will exist in your organization, and in your life. And at how success will find you.