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Sunday, August 20, 2017

What Do You Mean, Communication?


    The sign on the back of the truck says, “Safety Is My Goal.”
     No it isn’t. Safety is not the goal – of the driver, the owner or the truck, whichever one “my” refers to.
     A goal is the ultimate outcome sought by any activity. The driver’s goal is to get paid. His employer’s goal is to make a profit. The truck has no say.
     This is an example of hyping an otherwise worthy consideration into something it’s not. It’s an effort doomed to failure.
     While every following driver could have understood what was meant by the sign on the truck, many of them might be negatively impressed.
     Couldn’t the company’s leadership, and/or its marketing people, have come up with something true and interesting, rather than an obviously insincere cliché?

     The point of promotion, even if it’s just a sticker on an 18-wheeler, is to give viewers a reason to at least remember the organization favorably, and maybe someday be influenced to buy from it.
     At best, what was the message on that truck? That this guy will try not to hurt anybody. A waste of a PR opportunity, however tiny a one.

     If you think this is just nitpicking, pause for a moment and think about it. You may be a practitioner of the problem.
      The safety sign pasted on the truck is not a lie, really. It is an example of a widespread and expensive flaw in the management of organizations. Sloppy words from sloppy thinking. When it infects projects and other high-stakes activities, it can be a killer.
    Managers who have trouble getting their staff members to pay attention may have led people to expect repetitious, vague or even nonsensical pronouncements from on high. I once worked as assistant to guy whose staff members, when they didn’t just ignore his memos, would come to me for translation.
     His written language was pompous and uninformative, which perfectly reflected the character of the man. He was mean but, luckily, he was such a poor manager that he often forgot whatever it was he had decreed just the day before.
     That’s good, because his directives generally demanded the impossible, sometimes the ridiculous.

     Careless organizations tend to promote themselves by publishing their aspirations as if they were reality, or by purchasing off-the-shelf packages of worn-out slogans from some agency.
     I pulled my accounts from a bank because of its lousy customer service, then was entertained by its heavy radio advertising about its friendly, competent staff people. The  ones I knew were neither very pleasant nor very helpful. I imagine the glaring phoniness of the commercials triggered plenty of negative conversations on the street in our town.
     The misuse of language, whether external or internal, is harmful. It raises expectations that are bound to be dashed by reality, or encourages a general culture of disbelief. It erodes the organization’s credibility.
      Fuzzy communication is the standard in organizations whose executives and managers don’t comprehend the immense importance of honest information, and/or are personally averse to open engagement in conversation or collaboration.
     When you value communication, you run your organization so that its messages, both deliberate and unconscious, make clear the values you truly hold and employ.

    Commercial, professional and nonprofit organizations that communicate well do so, usually, because they are well managed. They know what their unique selling proposition is  because they have developed it carefully and staffed/trained properly to support it.
     As one result, they can describe it persuasively in the marketplace. For another, their employes are eager and able to collaborate in a well-understood common cause, and take pride in a good place to work. They are an enthusiastic sales force, and not just in the shop.
     Managements need to appreciate the importance of building that kind of organization – and they must undertake the demanding effort required to do so.
     How is it done? No surprise: Communication.
     Glib references to communication seriously miscalculate its role in executive performance.
     For starters, communication is at the heart of the work at the top.
     What do executives do? They make big decisions and they manage managers. That’s our general short-hand for their work, and rightly so.

     But they can’t make good decisions without knowing how to gain information –   through reading, watching, asking and listening.
     For their role in managing high-level staff people, add persuasion, negotiation and conflict management. For leading the organization, they must write and present  effectively.
     And if they want their organizations to communicate well, they devote executive attention to the preparation and practice of good communication throughout. They need to involve everybody, and they need to pay attention.
     When they’re doing it right, you’ll know by the signs on the backs of their trucks.

A QUESTION: How often have you experienced excellent organizational communication? What was it like?

SEE ALSO: Surly Silence as Communication?


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