The Communication Illusion

Attribution purists dispute that Shaw is the person who first spoke this version of the quote, but regardless of its source, my years in the business world have proven to me the truth of its message. In my experience, deficiencies in communication happen most often in performance management, business objective setting, and critical process planning. The risks of poor communication include turnover in your most important and hard-to-recruit positions.

Performance Management

One of the most feared performance review outcomes is the blindsided employee. One manager actually told me that performance feedback conversations were unnecessary because everyone had a job description. Right. Like millennials are all “I wish I had a job description”. Fortunately, more organizations are moving toward the strengths-based and agile model of performance feedback loops and away from the “here’s everything you need to improve before we fire you and by the way we are probably going to fire you anyway” model. Many companies continually change out their performance management tools in an effort to find one that “works”. The tool is rarely the issue.

Mission Management

I always ask leaders what they think their employees tell people at happy hours or family picnics about the place they work. Is it the company’s clearly communicated mission, core values, and customer service objectives? Is it the differentiated service or products? Is it the positive culture and morale? One of our responsibilities to employees is having them feel good about the contribution they are making to the success of the organization. Don’t assume that they know what that is. Better the leadership provide the message than employees create the message in a vacuum. Bonus outcome of good communication about business objectives: it is the easy starting point for setting performance expectations.

Change Management

The communication illusion is also found during critical business scenarios such as layoffs, organizational realignments, and other important change initiatives. Especially in results-oriented environments, the focus is often more on the doing than on the explaining. Crafting a slick message for the media and posting the press release on the cafeteria bulletin board is not respectful of employees’ legitimate anxiety that stems from change. And an all-hands meeting might result in more harm than good -- especially if the words “it will be business as usual” are spoken.

Just Do It

The best place to start with crafting communications during change or growth initiatives is to interview your stakeholders. What are their concerns? What would be helpful for them to know so that they can be engaged and motivated to participate in the initiatives? Tailor your message to the most common responses and draft Q&A’s. Provide empathetic and detailed talking points, bullet points, scripts, etc. to managers handling important organizational processes such as performance feedback, objective setting, and change initiatives. Providing guidance to new supervisors and managers is especially important.

Back to job descriptions for a minute. Don’t they all list “excellent communication skills” as a requirement? Do we ever test those pre-hire? Some companies incorporate candidate presentations into the job interview process, especially at the executive level. What about post-hire training? Some companies bring in business communications experts to lead seminars.

Reach out to me if you would like an assessment of your current communications processes or if you would like help with a specific communications project, plan, or training program. I’d love to help.

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