Is ineffective communication hurting your business?
By Jeff Mandel and Steve Hamner
In today's world, we can select from a myriad of tools designed to facilitate rapid communication: cell phones, email, PDAs…we can even receive real-time information 24 hours a day from virtually any location. There's nowhere to hide any more!
The fact is, with advances in technology have come tools that are certainly great from an efficiency perspective, but that don't necessarily help us improve the effectiveness of our communication. Think about it. How many times a week do you find yourself either directly involved or assisting others with resolving issues due to ineffective communication? Usually these issues occur for one of three reasons:
1) Lack of communication
2) Ineffective listening, or
3) Misinterpretation of the message
There is an inordinate amount of disconnects between our ability to receive timely information and our ability to effectively communicate within our organizations, with our business partners, as well as with our friends and family. As Joseph Priestley said, "The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate."
During our analysis of various business operations over the past two years, we discovered that one of the consistent contributors to underperforming operations is ineffective communication. As a result, we decided to spend the last two months interviewing a sampling of broker/owners and executives from financial institutions to identify the common threads in their definitions of effective and ineffective communication, as well as the best practices they utilize to improve communication.
Defining Effective Communication
When asked to define effective communication, our sample group provided similar descriptions with unique styles or methods that worked within their organizations. The common thread was that communication could only be considered effective when the speaker or writer was certain that the recipient had interpreted the message, in its proper context, and could demonstrate an understanding that matched the intent of the deliverer. To this end, it is imperative for the person delivering the communication to understand the needs and thoughts that will influence the perception of the recipient prior to the communication delivery. Just as important as the effective delivery of the message is the effective listening on the part of the recipient.
"The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said."
– Peter Drucker
If the message is unclear or open to interpretation, it is imperative for the recipient to ask the questions that will provide clarity. Anything else would be considered ineffective communication.
Don't Take it Personally
Mark Stark, CEO of Prudential Americana in Las Vegas, advises, "Don't assume that you have communicated your message in its intended form." The speaker cannot know what the listener is hearing. Your message may be very clear to you, but the listener could hear something completely different. The listener will put influences on what is heard based on prior experiences and will interpret the message in that context.
We have all been guilty of taking someone's communication personally. When you internalize a message, your response will tend to be more focused on proving that your thought is right instead of developing a resolution to the issue. Instead of listening to the remainder of the message, your mind is already formulating the response. You have become "offended" by the message and will tend to respond in a defensive way, which causes a breakdown in communication. As Stark describes it, when you develop the ability to be "unoffendable" you can hear better.
Know Your Audience
When reaching out to partners, Brad Dimmig, vice president and senior relationship manager of Chase Home Mortgage National Joint Venture Sales group, feels that it is of utmost importance to know whom you are communicating with and what is important to them. For example, some people are only concerned about the bottom line, and want financially-driven communication. Others are deeply involved in understanding all aspects of their relationship. If you know your audience, you can craft the message accordingly so that you have the best possible chance of delivering your intended message.
Ken Harthausen, managing director of strategic business alliances for Countrywide, agrees that when delivering a message, you need to be able to read your audience so that you can present the information in a way that will be understood.
When Harthausen is delivering a message, he will strive to speak in terms that the audience will understand. This requires adapting the delivery mode for virtually every message. The approach will be different for one person than it will be for two or three or more, and as each new recipient is added, you are increasing the number of potential interpretations of the message. The larger the group, the more difficult the ability to ensure that good communication has occurred.
To best compensate for the broad range of listening and comprehension styles present in a large group, Harthausen will do his best to deliver each important message in several different ways, in the hope of reaching as many listeners as possible. In a perfect world you would adjust your message for each individual recipient-when dealing with a large audience, you must drill it home in several different ways so that your audience can grasp the message in their own individual way.
A Two-Way Street
"Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak"
As Harthausen and others know, effective communication has to flow two ways. It needs to be delivered in such a way so that when it is received it is understood. In that respect, in effective communication it is incumbent upon the recipient to ensure that he or she understands the message. When Harthausen receives a communication from a client or superior, for example, he will "play it back to make sure I understand." To do this, he will "parrot" back what he has heard in order to be sure that he understands the proper meaning. If he can repeat the message in his own words, and the deliverer agrees with his interpretation, then he knows he has properly interpreted the message.
It is vitally important to not only listen to, but to intently observe the person that is speaking in order to gain a full understanding of what is being said. Proper communication requires that you not only hear the words, but also understand the context and tone with which they are delivered. When speaking face-to-face, it is imperative to observe the speaker's body language, as it too will provide context for the words. It is amazing how quickly we can respond to statements or questions when in a meeting. If you have crafted a response to be delivered as soon as, or even before, the other person has finished speaking could you truly have listened to and comprehended everything that was said?
The Importance of a Communication Plan
Well-managed companies experiencing healthy growth generally have a clearly defined communication plan so that the employees and respective stakeholders understand the proper channels and protocols to follow. Next month, we'll take a look at the strategies that will work best for developing your communication plan.
It appears that only a minority of companies have adequate communication plans in place and even fewer actually adhere to them. The lack of a solid plan is a root cause for many forms of confusion within a company. In the early lifecycle of most companies individuals typically assume multiple roles and freeform communication works. As the company grows and matures, the needs of the company and the individuals change. The way we communicate within the organization needs to evolve as well to ensure that poor communication does not hamper the growth of the company. If the team does not understand the proper chain of communication, the result is numerous phone calls or emails to the wrong people before an issue can be resolved. This inappropriately consumes valuable time and can delay resolution of an issue to the point that it creates a bigger challenge, including a reduction in customer (both internal and external) and employee satisfaction. It can also lead to unintended negative consequences when changes occur without the prior knowledge or input of those impacted by the change.
Linda Sherrer, CEO of Prudential Network Realty in Jacksonville, FL, has a written communication plan and revised it at beginning of this year due to a realignment of executive responsibilities that was occurring. Ms. Sherrer and two key executives were in the process of taking on different responsibilities within the organization and realized very quickly that they needed to identify the proper protocols for communication. Many staff members had become accustomed to reaching out to one or the other of them in certain situations. As responsibilities had shifted, the communication paths needed to do the same. One of the hardest parts of this kind of realignment is retraining the team and getting them focused on going to the right people. In this case, it really only took a few weeks to get them reoriented, because Ms. Sherrer and her leadership team took the time to draft out a plan and then share the plan with their teams.
Last year a senior leadership group at Prudential Fox & Roach/Trident spent a full day working on generating ideas to eliminate silos between the different business units. Gerry Griesser, President of The Trident Group, had noticed that there were instances of communication breakdowns and needed to create an approach that would allow for the free flow of ideas and discussion around the consequences of decisions and changes made by the business units that were having unintended impacts on others. Up to this point in time, the related business units had not leveraged a communication plan, so there was no clearly defined responsibility for the communication of changes that were crossing business unit boundaries. The session was facilitated by their corporate psychologist and was an eye opener for many as they thought through different scenarios and identified what was and was not effective. The team identified three types of communication that tend to occur in their organization:
1. Transactional information that needs an immediate response;
2. Items that need to be acted upon within 48 to 72 hours;
3. Long term objectives that require input from many parties and consensus building.
The items that fell into the first two categories simply required that the staff know who is empowered to respond to these issues so that they could be resolved quickly and did not cause day-to-day business to be derailed. They are currently in the process of setting up systems for long-term policy changing decisions requiring input from multiple people. Mr. Griesser has formed an operations communication committee which meets every 6 to 8 weeks. The members bring issues to the table that affect their group and discuss them with others across the enterprise. This committee is effectively eliminating some of the communication silos that had formed. Another outcome of their communication planning session was the creation of a scoring process for use in prioritizing issues. Based on the respective score of the issue, they leverage their intranet to broadcast the topic to pre-defined group members with a required response timeframe. This approach should help eliminate many of the ‘surprises' that have occurred in the past when changes were not communicated effectively to all affected parties.
These two leaders have taken proactive steps to ensure that their teams know when and how to communicate and with whom. It is not difficult to map out a communication plan, but it does take some time and commitment to make it effective. This fairly simple process allows their organizations to operate more smoothly, with less time wasted on miscommunication.
Effective Forms of Communication
There was consensus among the group that the most effective forms of communication, for significant items that require decision making, were face-to face dialogue or a well-written document. In a face-to-face meeting, you can hear the inflection in the speaker's voice while observing the accompanying body language. Once you have heard the message, you have an opportunity to evaluate the content and ask questions for clarification to ensure understanding. In a written document, all of the parameters influencing the topic can be itemized and explanatory background text can be included to better ensure that the desired message is being delivered. The recipient can study the document carefully to understand the message and if clarification is needed ask questions or seek out additional information. These two methods are the most effective at ensuring that the intended message is being communicated and understood by the recipient. When the opportunity exists to combine both forms of communication in a complimentary manner (i.e., follow up an in person meeting with the key points or additional detail in writing) it is typically even more effective. However, recognizing that it is not always possible to reach a broad group of individuals with face-to-face meetings, it is imperative to adapt multiple and at times overlapping communication styles based on the importance and time sensitivity of the message you are communicating.
A phone call is not always the best substitute for a face-to-face discussion because the observation of body language is lost. The inability of both parties in the communication process to witness body language impacts both the speaker and the listener as both parties will deliver unseen clues as to their understanding of the message. Additionally, in today's fast paced world it is quite common to get voice mail and not the live person on the initial call. A message left on voice mail may not be interpreted in the way the speaker intended and there is no opportunity for the recipient to question the intent right away. The listener is left to interpret the message with his own influences, and will need to call the sender back for clarification or to deliver a response. To mitigate some of this risk, Countrywide has been offering telecasts to their distributed workforce so that they can visualize the speaker and hopefully gain more from the message. They are also piloting a program with their senior executives to employ video conferencing to replace the non-visual teleconferences that occur on a regular basis.
Most of our group feels that email is a valuable tool for disseminating information such as announcements, business tips, notices of events and changes to procedures and is rapidly replacing the traditional hardcopy ‘newsletter'. It is a great tool for the distribution of static information that does not require a response. We see this effectively used by many companies to provide regular informational updates to internal and external constituents. The challenge with email distributions is to properly manage the volume and content so as not to cause a sense of overload on the part of the recipients. If they get bombarded with messages of questionable importance, they will quickly start to tune them out and the message will be lost.
Bill Gaylord, SVP at First Magnus, had this to say about the dangers of using email when trying to arrive at consensus on a decision. "We can easily get caught up in email and it can get bounced back and forth without resolution. In many instances, it may be more practical to pick up the phone. For effective email communication, the more simple and concise the better. Instead of typing in several paragraphs, try bullet pointing the key messages, which can allow for better comprehension. Do not include a lot of fluff. A long winded message can cause the reader to check out."
We asked the group to provide some recommendations that could be applied by our readers to improve their communication both within their organizations and with external business partners. Here are some of the highlights.
Mr. Stark feels that through poor communication ‘great organizations are destroyed a little bit at a time'. We find that instead of constantly striving for better communication, we typically wait for big events to occur and then try to learn how to communicate. The preferred approach would be to learn a little every day
Mr. Harthausen suggests that when you are working with business partners in remote locations you need to be focused on understanding the different styles of communication preferred by your partners. One may prefer a phone call and another will only respond to email. You need to be able to adapt to the needs of your partners so that you are always using the most appropriate channel to reach them.
When communicating the need to make changes, Mr. Griesser feels that you need to understand the value proposition and overly communicate it. This will ensure that all parties are focused on the chosen path and hear the message until it becomes ingrained in their minds. He has found that some folks are really willing to embrace change (navigators) and others consistently resist (victims). It is more difficult to communicate with a victim. Navigators are willing to be leaders because they will accept change and be willing move forward. When evaluating your team and looking for those that will advance into leadership roles, focus on the navigators.
Transition, or change, is always a challenge. When going through these periods of change, Ms. Sherrer understands the importance of having a plan. She feels that you need to have a detailed communication plan around any change and stick to it. All affected parties need to know the actions that will occur and when and the team needs to maintain open lines of communication so that there are no surprises. If you have the right level of communication, the changes can be accomplished much more smoothly. If all parties are informed, your business and employee/partner morale will not be disrupted as much.
In addition to the great points raised by the executives above, we have learned the following and continue to try and personally improve the following communication best practice: Always take the extra time before you speak or communicate to ask yourself the following four questions:
1. What is the objective of my message?
2. Do I understand the needs of the stakeholders for whom the message is intended?
3. How can/will my message could be interpreted?
4. Is my message clear and succinct?
If a lack of clarity or a gap exists with any of the four then you need to pause and make the appropriate adjustments before you proceed and create a new challenge.
"Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people"