A “Communication Session”
Survey an underperforming team to understand what’s wrong and you’re likely to find that it’s “communications.” Ineffective leaders are often poor communicators. And when they try to fix the problem their instincts often take them in the wrong direction. Instead of communicating, they broadcast.
There’s a big difference.
That difference is rooted in the nature of relationships. A relationship is formed whenever two people share an objective. The objective could be something mutually agreed upon, like carpooling to work, or it could be happenstance, like two people heading for the last seat on a bus. We all have hundreds of relationships going at any one time, particularly those people who are most important in our lives, including the people we work with. If you are on a team, officially or unofficially, you’re in relationships with your teammates. You share the overall team objectives (whether you agree with them or not).
Communicating is one of the most basic of relationships: two people share the objective of accurately transferring information and emotion to one another. We often forget the emotional component of communicating, yet we want people to know how we’re feeling and to empathize with us. Ineffective leaders just assume that the information and emotion they impart has been accurately received. That is broadcasting—a one-way transfer of information and emotion with little regard for how accurately the information and emotion have been received. Think of the office memo. It’s virtually the definition of broadcasting, though it is often referred to as communication.
Other forms of broadcasting often masquerade as communication. Social media is broadcasting posing as a relationship mediated by the “like” button. The like button merely indicates approval of whatever the receiver thinks the information conveys. But it doesn’t tell the broadcaster whether the receiver received the message exactly as intended.
Communication requires feedback—an indication that the person receiving the information or emotional content has properly understood it. People we consider good communicators often have little noticed habits that make people feel “listened to.” They nod or say “I understand,” with an appropriate facial expression that mimics the emotion they believe is intended. Good communicators also ask things like, “Did that make sense?” or “How do you feel about that?”
The sheer scale of an informational challenge, like a sweeping reorganization of an operation, will often drive leaders to resort to broadcasting. They may believe they have no other choice. But good leaders, who understand that the bigger the challenge the more important it is to get it right, will make sure that they communicate. They will create different forms of the communication for each team or department affected—the accounting department will understand a change differently than the sales office in Detroit. And they will ask the team or department leaders to report back on how accurately the information was received and what emotion it sparked, no matter what the information ostensibly says.
To ensure good communications, especially in the face of big changes, try using a Communication Matrix. List each constituency that will be directly or indirectly affected. Then for every constituency, list who, what, when, where and how of the information and emotion will be communicated. In a “feedback” column, identify how the accuracy of the reception of the information and emotion will be measured, monitored and communicated back to leaders. For a major reorganization in a large firm, the “Com Matrix” can be dozens of pages long and require a small team to administer the logistics of delivery and feedback.
Communicating within a team requires much less logistical support but has its own challenges, particularly when the team is forming. One of the most fundamental keys to the success of a team is to start by aligning everyone’s understanding of what the team needs to accomplish, each team member’s roles and responsibilities, and how everyone honestly feels about it. This is more complicated than many team leaders acknowledge. So they deal with it in cursory fashion, broadcasting the team’s roles and objectives in a team charter or the like that is purposely devoid of emotional content and may use terminology some team members do not understand. Leaders who broadcasting in this way to a team that is just forming immediately create distrust.
Genuine communication requires that the leader know how accurately members of the team understand their roles and the team’s objectives—and, just as importantly, what emotions they attach to those understandings. Each team member will interpret the goals and objectives and their roles within the context of their own personal motivations. Will being on a team with these goals and objectives, within the context of the department and their relationships with colleagues make them happy or fearful?
Leaders ignore the emotional component at their peril. “Poor communications” on a team survey indicates a much more troubling problem than superficial misunderstandings. It suggests that the team does not trust their leader to act in their best interests. And that’s a problem that no amount of broadcasting can fix.