Where did that go wrong?

"Employees recommend having insurance benefit meetings in the evenings," I said as we gave our report to the senior managers of a large manufacturing company.  We were finishing our consulting work with a company that had surveyed employees, found out some areas of concern, and asked us to come in and figure out how to help. "We already do!" the HR Director exclaimed, "I can show you!" he said, waving the company newsletter in the air. Sure enough, there in the newsletter was an announcement: Employee Benefit Meeting, Thursday, 7 pm. The date was the same week we were finishing up our interviews . . .

The classic 1953 skit "Who's on first" by Abbott and Costello is a delicious bit of miscommunication that often, sadly, is reminiscent of our business communications.  We think we are communicating but often we simply . . . are . . . not. Worse than a "Who;s on first? miscommunication--which at least gives the parties the change to discover that their message is not be received as intended--we often "swing and miss," failing to communicate at all. 

Take the senior management meeting I shared above. My colleague and I had spent six days working with employees in focus groups to follow up on the employee satisfaction survey that had identified some problem areas. One problem was "employee benefits." Our focus groups (Two three-hour meetings on this topic with 20 employees across 9 plants and all 3 shifts) focused on identifying what were the specific problems with employee benefits and creating recommendations for action plans for the senior management to follow up on.

One of the suggestions was that having benefit meetings in the evening would be helpful. This suggestion was particularly relevant because this company operated in a male-dominant industry (with fewer than 20% women employees) and the spouses were overwhelmingly the ones accessing the benefits. Employees explained that due to childcare, jobs, and other factors their spouses could not get away of attend meetings during the day and the employees, who could attend the meeting, did not because they did not "handle" the benefits.

So, a recommendation was crafted to ask for benefit meetings in the evenings. But, they already did have the meetings in the evenings. as the exasperated HR Director pointed out. He showed us the newsletter with the announcement. The air in the room was still with anticipation. What did this mean? How could employees not know this? Are the recommendations even valid?  I pointed out that although this particular recommendation was a moot point, "It is obvious that you are already doing this. However, the fact that 20 of your employees were involved in drafting this recommendation and no one said, 'Uh, guys? We already do this!' says we have a problem."

Diving In

This led to a discussion on the use of the company newsletter.  It turned out that the company was simply posting the newsletter on bulletin boards around the plants. However, employees only had time to read the newsletter before or after work with the result being that almost no one took the time to actually read them.

The problem? Communication.  Leadership thought they were communicating by creating the newsletter. Employees were not happy but their "voice" had not been heard. Everyone was aware of the tensions in the workplace but until the survey identified benefits as a problem no one was tasked with figuring out how to fix it. The key, often, lies in communication. How do we communicate, when do we communicate, who do we communicate to, what do we communicate, and why is it important should be important considerations for any leader.

But communication is complex. People often communicate through their actions rather than their words. To reach their own personal goals they may obscure their real thoughts and emotions. They may avoid communication that, although important to the success of the team, puts them in a situation where they will feel uncomfortable or fear their job might be threatened.. Aggressive, avoidant, or "freezing" at moments of high emotional stress--such as when conflict occurs in the workplace--may further block good communication. If you've been a leader for a few years you know.

What can be done?

But what can you do as a leader to mitigate the impact of poor communication?

1. Model a belief that the goal is to grow, be efficient, improve, or master your workflow . . . not simply avoid mistakes. Employees know what you really value. It oozes out of everything you do--what you pay attention to, what you reward, what makes you react--and they know it's in their best interest to "give the boss what he/she wants."

2. Learn about your own communication style and challenges. Are you aware that you have a tendency to get defensive?  Do you avoid the "hard" interactions with employees? Are you just tired of being a boss? Knowing where you are and how that effects your communication--and how it is effecting the organization--is critical to making adjustments.

3. Promote awareness of communication as an important business tool. One reason communication is often a problem is that no one focuses on it as a business concern. Yes, many are quick to not that it is a factor in the problems they experience but how many times have you hear of a company that has a "communication initiative" or a "communication program" for employees of managers? If you have, drop me an email. I'd love to hear that story.

4. Encourage the development of communication skills. Make communication one of the critical factors in evaluating your team, and each individual's, performance. Remind them that no successful team has ever been poor at communicating. If you want a practical, low-cost, and fun way of illustrating this check out the game "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes." It's a fun game (about $15) where one person tries to defuse a "bomb" while another person or several people use the bomb manual to assist--but neither participant can see what the other one is seeing/doing. It quickly illustrates the challenges of  communication. (We used it recently with a work team and it was the highlight of the workshop!)

5. Periodically and regularly use an external tool to identify and developing problems. Look, employees don't sit at home and ask themselves, "Is there anything I should be communicating to management that I haven't said?" Worse yet, they may know things that they would like to say but, like teenagers with parents, there are complex dynamics to actually having the courage to speak. "What will my boss think? How will other employees react? Will this influence who is promoted?" Employees need an "emotionally safe" space in order to give real accurate feedback. Anonymous surveys, external consultants, even Employee Assistance providers (if management focused) all can be independent sources of information and a "reality check" on what is really going on with employees.

6. Proactively address any issues identified. Communication is enhanced or diminished by what happens after the fact. People expect to see actions a result of their communication input. That action may be as simple as "thank you for your help" but often it needs to be something more. It needs to imply, at the least, that we really "heard what you told us" and, even more often should have an added element of "here is what is the result." Even if the result is negative it can meet this standard.  "We understand what you are telling us but because of X we are not changing this right now. But we will reconsider it if or when X happens," can be effective action even if the employee does not like the outcome.

7. Expect new communication glitches., Time, learning, growth . . . many things contribute to having new communication problems. The compliant 5 year old becomes a pushy 13 year old. They have grown and developed but now there are new issues. I mentioned using the game "Keep Talking" above. When we were using it with the group the results at first were quite bad . . . the "bomb" went off overtime before they could defuse it. However they were beginning to understand and anticipate some of the problems. One was that they needed to figure out how to communicate more effectively about the "wiring" on the bombs. For this round, I gave out 3 bomb manuals to team members to help defuse the bomb. They immediately set to work organizations how they could "attack" the problem of understanding the wiring and help the team member who was at the "bomb site" working on the devise itself. This would have been a great strategy . . . except . . . it was based on the assumption that the next bomb would be like the others they had already attempted! But the new bomb didn't even have any wires. All their communication and preparation was useless.

Leaders, communication is central to everything you do. Just like branding, marketing, public relations are elements you need to be aware of in order for your company to succeed communication is key to your leadership success.

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