Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Communication is always to blame when things go wrong

So says Steve Jones, a vice president at Broadcast International, who was author of Monday's Today's Tip in the online version of Business Week magazine. Jones says that in business:

"If you’re not communicating effectively, often the margin of error increases and effectiveness and success suffer."
I doubt I will find many communicators who disagree with that analysis. He explains what he sees as good practice, saying he likes to start the communication process by making sure his team can uniformly and consistently answer two key questions:
  • What are we building?
  • Why are we building it?
It's a pretty simple test of effectiveness. But Jones' communications model does look very much like a one way street of top-down message cascade. It looks very delivery centric. Given that, is communication always to blame when things go wrong? Or perhaps, has claiming a failure of communication now become a convenient scapegoat for those numerous occasions when the message lands loud and clear, but people simply do not like or accept the message? For me, if communication is defined in the way Jones is approaching it, all too often it's the latter.

Many great examples of this can regularly be found in the world of politics. Whether it is the UK Labour Government, representatives of the European Union or staffers in the White House, politicians and their spin doctors are repeat offenders when it comes to using communication as a scapegoat for people disliking the messages they receive. Take this stellar example from former Labour minister, Hazel Blears in May this year:
"The second pillar is effective campaigning and communications. Labour ministers have a collective responsibility for the government's lamentable failure to get our message across. All too often we announce new strategies or five-year plans, or launch new documents – often with colossal price tags attached – that are received by the public with incredulity at best and, at worst, with hostility."
Is there a failure to get their message across? Blears' own follow up sentence shows there isn't. It is simply that people do not agree with the proposals put forward, or do not believe what they have been told because previous pledges have been broken. Nevertheless, poor communication is wrongly blamed because the people delivering the message refuse to accept that anyone can disagree with them. That for me is where Jones falls down. It's one thing to understand the message, it's another to agree with it.

Leaders only have themselves to blame if things go wrong because the real communication failure is one that's all too common in politics and business. It is the failure to listen. If a politician or a director want to carry people with them, they need to ensure they themselves understand what is important to those people and what causes them concern.

They can only do that by listening to what people have to say. Communication is more complicated than delivering nicely packaged messages and everyone knowing what the messages say. The message has to be something people are comfortable with and are prepared to buy into. And before that can happen, information needs to travel in both directions and leaders need to listen. In a way communication in the real sense of the word is to blame, but not in the simplistic way Jones seems to be articulating.

Of course there are big differences between politics and business. Regardless, in both fields it is essential to listen to the people on the ground and as much as possible take their views into account. In both fields (but not in all cases) there are examples of real disconnect because not enough leaders understand or accept that communication requires them to listen, or they simply refuse to listen. In such cases the communication failure rests solely with them.

Instead of saying communication is always to blame when things go wrong, it would be more constructive to look at the problem in a different way and remember that by adhering to that most essential component of communication - listening - leaders can dramatically increase the potential for things to go right. Surely that's a far better way of looking at things.

For me, Jones' tip would have been more valuable if he had identified and focused on that. In any case, it's time for the 'catch all' communication delivery scapegoat to be set free and for leaders to acknowledge that when things go wrong it's often because of their failure to open their ears and listen effectively.


Mike Klein said...

Good thoughts. I think the lack of listening often inherent in the way many organizations communicate is not simply about lack of listening itself. It's more about the timing of when organizations communicate, particularly about big or sensitive stuff.

For too many organizations, stuff doesn't get communicated until after it's decided. And "leaders", once they make decisions, neither like to have them questioned or challenged, nor do they want to open up a process they've already deemed closed.

So, in other words, its not that we face a lot of communication problems, we see a lot of decision-making process problems that show up as bad one-way communication.


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