After three decades as a business improvement consultant, you’d think I would have gotten used to how poor the communications are in some organizations, but it still shocks me. I talk with senior managers who tell me they have no clear idea of their company’s vision or direction. Sit in meetings and watch people skirt around essential issues, ignore significant problems, and avoid any level of confrontation, even if it would be productive.
I have interviewed thousands of employees who almost all report that they wish they got more information and better communication from their managers.
Once I was asked to deliver a keynote speech on leadership and building a winning culture to the senior leaders in a large organization. Just before it was my turn to talk, the company’s CEO presented the annual internal employee satisfaction survey findings.
The survey was divided into two groups; group one was the six hundred or so senior managers and top C-level leaders sitting in the room. Group two was the nearly eight thousand employees. The managers and leaders, group one, scored themselves in the 90th percentile and higher on questions such as “clearly communicates the vision,” “gives clear direction,” clearly communicates performance expectations,” “shows genuine concern for employees,” and “takes time to listen to ideas and concerns of employees.” Unfortunately, the employees scored the organization in the 30-percentile range on the same questions.
The managers and leaders thought they were doing a nearly perfect job communicating with their people, but the employees disagreed. If I didn’t see this sort of thing week in and week out, it would almost be amusing, but when I realize the negative impact this kind of dysfunctional communication has on the thousands of people who work in this organization, there is no humor in it at all.
Fundamental Organization Aspects of Communication
To solve the problem of poor communication at an organizational level, you must make clear communication a top priority by focusing on it, training heavily in it, measuring it, and rewarding those who do it well. The companies I’ve worked with that have excellent communication skills at an organizational level have built a culture that highly values the following aspects of communication:
- Honesty. Let me make this awesomely simple: tell the truth all the time. Honesty is the essential element in building an organization with strong communication.
- Empathy. It is one thing to be honest; it is another thing to be brutally honest. Tell the truth in a direct yet respectful and empathetic way. Shoot straight with people, but don’t shoot them between the eyes.
- Courage. Organizations with a strong communication culture tell the truth about even the most challenging subjects. They have the courage to put uncomfortable topics on the table and force a discussion. Rather than hoping that bad things go away, that someone else will fix it, the problem will solve itself. They start a dialogue about precisely what it will take to address the problem head-on and move toward a positive solution. Courageous communication also includes having the nerve and confidence to question authority. When the leader chooses a direction in some organizations, even if it is a poor one, everyone dutifully falls behind. Still, a good communicator dares to tell the emperor he has no clothes.
- Safety. If you want people to tell the truth about even the most challenging and uncomfortable topics, you have to make it safe for them. I remember a woman who pulled me aside after one of my conflict resolution classes to ask me for advice about communicating a problematic issue to her boss. I suggested she tell the truth and be honest about her concerns. The woman looked at me as if I had suddenly grown a second nose in the middle of my forehead and said, “Are you crazy? If I said something like that, my boss would vaporize me on the spot.” That is not what I would consider a safe environment for open and honest communication.
- Intellectual rigor. Although people should be safe, ideas should not be. In an intellectually rigorous culture, theories are tested, hypotheses are challenged, and people welcome and encourage critical examination of ideas and information, regardless of the source. A perfect example of a communication culture like this is Microsoft, where they expect you to poke and prod ideas aggressively. The goal is for only the strongest ideas to survive.
- Transparency. A hallmark of great organizations is that they share as much information with all of their stakeholders as they can. Short of actual salary numbers or highly confidential data, winning organizations foster a free flow of information across all levels of the business.
An Excellent Example of Superb Communication
An example will demonstrate what an organization with excellent transparency and superb communication skills looks like. About eight years ago, I was invited to the national sales meeting of a $350 million manufacturing company. I had just completed conducting an advanced customer service workshop when the company’s CEO took the stage to tell the entire sales force about the new compensation system. If you talk about changing the commission structure and bonuses that salespeople will receive, they can determine the precise impact it will have on their income faster than a supercomputer. Ten minutes into the CEO’s explanation of the new compensation package, people began to mumble. Because he was paying close attention to his audience, he stopped and said.
“I’m getting the feeling you’re not too happy about this new compensation structure, are you?” To which the entire crowd replied with a booming, “No!” He stood there dazed for a few seconds. Then said, “Wow, we worked hard on this and thought it was not only fair but pretty darn generous. Obviously, you don’t feel the same, so here is what we’re going to do. We will cancel the workshops for the rest of the afternoon. You will work together to rewrite the plan in the way you want it to be.”
Then he pointed to the chief financial officer standing in the corner of the room. He said, “We’ll give you access to all the numbers we used to develop this system. Just ask for any other information you need, and we’ll get it for you immediately. By four o’clock today, I would like you to come back to me with a compensation plan. One that you feel 100 percent comfortable and enthusiastic about. My promise to you is that I will not change it in any way.”
He paused and looked around the room, making eye contact with his salespeople before finishing his comments. “The one thing I ask is that you remember that the rest of the company is paid based on what you sell and how much commission you take. I know you all have a great deal of respect for the folks back in the factory who are building the stuff you’re selling. You want to make sure you treat everyone fairly. So please keep them in mind as you decide how to divvy up the money.
For the next three hours, small groups discussed and debated the new compensation package. The CEO, CFO, and I watched the teams in animated conversations about what they wanted. They pored over numbers, asked for spreadsheets, looked at compensation and bonus levels across the organization. Everyone spoke openly and honestly about what they thought was fair and reasonable for the company. They then assigned leaders from each group to represent their teams in molding the various suggestions into one cohesive compensation package. At 4:00 pm, the CEO announced that it was time for them to present the new plan. “I want you to know that whatever you decide will be adopted immediately as our new compensation plan. I completely trust all of you and know you have the best interests of our entire organization at heart.”
As it turned out, they had made some significant adjustments to the compensation scheme. They decided to pay themselves less and put more into a bonus pool for the entire organization. If they exceeded the goals set for the sales force, everyone would they make more money. It was a winning strategy for everyone.
That is a stunning example of trust, candor, safety, intellectual rigor, and transparency. If you can’t imagine something similar ever taking place in your company, you have some work to do.