Leadership Barometer 17 Optimize Communication

September 23, 2019

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Optimize communication

All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day. So why does communication always surface in the top 2 of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization?

The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let’s first look at the symptom from two vantage points.

The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day.

All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. So it is a frustration when people feedback that there is “never any communication” going on. Wow, what a slap in the face.

From the worker’s perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them.

The messages heard are not consistent with the messages sent by the leader. There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a “gotcha” announcement.

The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let’s take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.

1. Frequency – the span between communication on key issues is more tricky than meets the eye. The old rule of “the more the merrier” is really not the best policy.

When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out, and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore. Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand.

So what is the antidote? How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the volume control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language – often in group settings.

2. Boring Message – I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. So, all the information is given, but everyone is zzzzd out, and there is poor communication.

The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you.

Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning.

I know the CEO of an organization that communicates with a deck of 50-100 PowerPoint slides. After the third slide, everybody in the audience is politely staring at the screen with the facial appearance of listening when in reality they are absorbing none of the information.

The antidote here is to get the CEO some basic training on PowerPoint no-no’s and make sure he doesn’t sleep through the class.

3. Not what I said – Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning.

It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, “The reason you don’t understand me, is because I’m talking in English and you’re listening in Dingbat!” During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog. You may need to learn to speak in “dingbat.”

4. Too complex – In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time.

Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time. Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation.

Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible, and consider the different learning styles of your audience.

5. Management Speak – Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call “management speak.” They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow. Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message.

However, be very careful to not “talk down” to people on the shop floor. They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them.

Resist the temptation to “dumb down the message” so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language. Just because they do not know Latin is no reason to treat them as ignorant.

6. Shifting messages – It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different.

Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent. Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect.

The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.

7. Electronic Communication – Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication virtually. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication. It took me 300 pages in a book to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication.

Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book).

An example may help here. Most people view an e-mail like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong! When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting.

Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous.

8. Communicating at the head level – Good communication does not occur at the “head” level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc. Real communication is deep in the gut.

When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.

Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Communication Complexities

October 14, 2012

Most of us have played the campfire game where a bunch of kids sit around the fire and pass a message from one to the other. It never fails that the message coming out at the end bears little resemblance to what was started.

The same kind of phenomenon is going on when two people try to communicate. There are many steps in the communication process, each of which might be pictured as an individual cub scout sitting around the fire. Here are ten steps that happen each time we say something to someone else:

1. I have a thought that I want to convey to you.

2. I decide how I am going to convey that message to you with my choice of words.

3. I send the message according to my interpretation of how my words will translate my true intent. (I will discuss tone and body language below.)

4. The information goes out from me through the air in sound waves.

5. You then pick up some portion of those waves depending on your level of attention and your physical ability to receive them. You never get them all.

6. You process the information based on your interest in what I am saying and your current level of distraction.

7. You make an interpretation of the information based on your biases and filters about how you perceive the world and what you were expecting me to say.

8. You make a decision how to translate the input into reaction thought patterns in your brain.

9. You make a determination about what you are going to do with the information.

10. You then give some external reaction, comment, or action based on your thoughts.

In each of these steps, there is the potential for tiny modifications of the original thought. Each modification may seem insignificant, but just as in the case with the campfire game, if you add up all of the minute changes, the final meaning may be quite different from the original one.

If the communication is reasonably good, then the thought in my head would be planted in your head roughly intact. If one step in the process modifies the input slightly, the starting point for the next step will be different, and a significant distortion in the final received message is likely.

When you add in the infinite variety of signals included in tone of voice and body language, the complexity goes up exponentially. The complexity involved in getting the words right is a significant challenge, but studies show that the words contain only a tiny fraction of the meaning we get. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian measured that when talking about feelings or emotions, only about 7% of the meaning is contained in the words we use. The remaining 93% of content is in the tone of voice and body language.

If I say to you, “You couldn’t have been any better in that meeting this morning,” the message you will receive is highly dependent on my voice inflection and body language. The same words can have very different, even opposite, meanings.

Body language is so complex because we send signals on many different levels subconsciously. The meaning you get will be colored by my skill at accurately projecting the intent behind the communication and also your skill at picking up the signals and decoding them correctly. There may be cultural differences as well that can make the interpretation even more complex. That is why knowledge of and appreciation for the complexities of body language are essential for good communication.

When you consider the complexity of this process, it is not shocking that a fair percentage of meaning in direct communication does not even hit the target area, let alone accomplish a bulls-eye. I think it is amazing that we get as close as we do.

When miscommunication happens, it is a natural reaction to become frustrated and even angry. We may jump to conclusions about the worthiness of our partner in communication. We say things like, “You are not speaking so I can understand your message,” or “You never listen to me,” or “You just don’t pay attention to what I am saying.” All of these scape-goating expressions may make us feel better by putting the blame on the other person, but they do not identify or rectify the root cause.

What is needed when message content becomes garbled is a sense that the inevitable straying off message has occurred. It is not necessarily the fault of either person. It just may take more than one attempt to communicate a message. To mitigate the problem, we need to patiently verify the message internalized is the same as the message sent. That takes a verification step, either verbally or with body language. Since the original communicator is 100% sure of what he or she thinks was said, it seems redundant to go through a verification ritual, but it is really necessary, especially for important messages.

When communicating with another person, keep in mind the complex process that is going on. Use your powers of observation to detect possible visual or verbal cues that the communication did not work as intended. Try to not blame the other person, because the truth is, it is a system problem, and you are also part of the system. Work on improving your own system both on the sending side and the receiving side.