—aka: Communication for Dummies
Sometimes, I just plain suck at communicating effectively. If you doubt me, ask my wife, my girls, my best friend Kevin, or any of the bosses I’ve worked for in the last 40 years.
If you take a quick minute to reflect, you probably suck sometimes, too.
This has been on my heart lately because I’ve run into a rash of people who believe their team is singing off the same page when they’re not even in the same hymnal. Or maybe it’s the Christmas Crazies, I don’t know, but I keep encountering messages sent that are definitely not the messages received.
So, you ask, if I help clients communicate more effectively for a living, why do I suck at it so often?
Same reason you do.
I wasn’t a communications major in college – I’m the engineer type – but I know that with those we know best, we seem to suffer from a familiarity bias that causes us to assume how our close relationships perceive our message… with predictable results. Kevin and I laughed last week that we would never allow a client to communicate as ineffectively as he and I have lately. Thankfully we knew how to fix it.
So, being the leadership Sherpas we are, I’d like to help you look inside your organization and come face-to-face with what keeps your team from communicating more effectively.
First, let’s assume positive intentions and dismiss the obvious reason: knowledge is power, and people on your team withhold knowledge and intentionally keep secrets to manipulate their co-workers. That actually happens more often than you know, by the way.
The next three most common reasons I’ve encountered lately are self-inflicted, and lay squarely at the feet of senior leadership.
- They’ve learned that you don’t really want dissention around the table, so they’ve perfected the art of contrived congeniality. I once worked with a senior leader who thought all of his direct reports got along great because they were all so nice to each other in staff meetings. Little did he know that some of them used video teleconferencing to talk to each other when their offices were just next door… they couldn’t stand to be in the same room.
- They’ve discovered that when they bring up hard issues, they end up feeling like they’re alone on a deserted island. That’s what leads to contrived congeniality. Just because you stop hearing about challenges doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. If you can’t take hard honesty – the new buzz phrase is radical candor – it’s time your feedback habits change.
- They think they have too much heart, they’re trying to be nice, it’s the holidays, they don’t want to make someone look bad, they want people to like them, blah, blah, blah. That’s BS — don’t let your leaders hide their bad behavior behind excuses that make them feel better about themselves.
The first two are caused by a lack of trust in your organization, and you have a piece of that. Effective communication and trust in an organization go hand-in-hand. You will not find two people who don’t trust each other able to communicate honestly with the organization’s best interest at heart, and it gets harder the more people you add to the mix.
That’s where you start improving communication. Building trust. That requires you to see people as people and talk to them in a way they’ll receive the message you’re trying to send.
So here’s a coaching moment. Share this with as many of your team as you can… and take some home for your family at the end of the day.
- First, when you enter into a conversation, check your ego at the door. Be authentic, present, and willing to listen to understand – not just looking for a break in the talking to express your opinion.
- I’m going to assume (shame on me) that you want your message to be received accurately, but have you thought about how your silence is being interpreted? Our non-verbals speak so much more than we give them credit for. You have to be intentional about not rolling your eyes, heavy sighing, shaking your head… all of that crap that shuts communication down.
- And lighten up! Don’t talk down, don’t pretend you know more than you do, don’t be intimidated when you talk to your boss (if “let’s talk” bring chills, you have a problem), and when you’ve blown it, admit that you suck at communication sometimes. Believe it or not, we’re all only human.
I spent much of the last twenty years knowing that ineffective communication might get someone killed. That probably won’t happen in your organization… but it might. If no one dies, you’ll definitely be under-performing at best, and probably running off your high potentials who are looking for a different kind of leadership team.
Think I’m wrong? I love a challenge, so let me hear it.
It’s up to you, leaders.