‘What We’ve Got Here …’

I am betting that almost everyone reading this can finish the headline: “… is failure to communicate.” Some even know that it comes from “Cool Hand Luke.” If you have ever worked in a business office, whether or not you have seen the movie, you have likely seen the impact of a failure to communicate.
It does not matter how often you communicate, or how loudly. If the people you are communicating with do not understand your message in a way that allows them to embrace it, you have a failure to communicate.

I offer a recent departmental meeting at a high-tech client as an example. The product development team was asked to undertake a major process change to be more market focused. Everyone agreed that when the process was complete, the organization would be more effective. But to get through the changes and continue the work in the pipeline, a lot of evening and weekend work would be needed. The change was critical, but the company also needed the revenue from new products to stay on course.

The VP who runs the group is a very bright woman. Her default style was to make a rational argument, trying to get her group to understand the company’s need. However, after some audience analysis, she came to a not-so-surprising conclusion. Both her equity interest in the company and her view of her accountability made working evenings and weekends part of her regular schedule. In other words, she was asking others to do what she does — only with none of the same (rational) reasons she has for doing it. She was going to have to find a different way to communicate.

Seeing the situation through the eyes of her staff, especially the ones that she would depend on most to get the work done, gave her a new perspective. When she talked with her team, she spoke about how the new model would give them so much more opportunity for innovation. Her team discussed its role in terms of the improved lives of the business’ customers and the potential increased impact the team members could have in the new model. From their discussion came a new departmental motto: “Whatever it takes, you get our best.”

Communication is only effective if it is in a language your listeners can hear. If you really want them to get the message, assume their point of view and design your communication from that vantage point.

On the other hand, I remember the president of a very large organization who compromised his credibility almost every time he addressed his organization formally. Although much preparation had gone into his presentation, he invariably attempted to speak informally by stepping out from behind the podium and ignoring his prepared remarks. This can be enormously effective if the speaker can use language to which the audience responds. In this case, his inability to see the world through the eyes of his employees and managers made the presentation seem insincere. The net outcome proved to the employees and managers that “He just does not get it.”

If you cannot get out of your own story when communicating, then research shows you would do well to follow the counsel of Tom Lehrer, a Harvard math professor and writer of satirical songs who once quipped, “People spend hours bemoaning the fact that they cannot communicate. I feel that if a person cannot communicate, the least they can do is to shut up!”

Originally published in Arkansas Business, April 2, 2007.