How Important Is Communication?

Kristen Piombino reports that subscribers to the Harvard Business Review rated the ability to communicate “the most important fact in making an executive promotable.” They even ranked in more important than ambition, education, and hard work.

But what exactly does the “ability to communicate” mean?  We have found that most people believe they are communicating, even when they are not getting the kinds of responses they expect.  Rather than consider that there is something off in their own communication, many people believe there is something off in the person (people) they are communicating with.

Clearly the way you deliver a communication matters.  Few us of like to be talked to in a rude manner.  But the types of conversations you use also make a difference.   Well delivered but inappropriate or incomplete conversations will not get you what you want.  Even worse, they will leave you with the impression that you are communicating when you aren’t.

Communication is important.  But like anything else we deliver, it is both the packaging AND the content that matters.

When Explanations Fail You, Try a Picture

A manager in a recent Four Conversations training session approached me and asked, “One of my employees frequently fails to accomplish the things I delegate to him.  Do you have any suggestions for improving his performance?”

“Sure”, I replied, “but first, when you say he fails, what do you mean?  Is he late, is the quality of what he does poor, or is his work incomplete, inaccurate, or unacceptable in some other way? If so, then you may be failing to specify when you want the assignment or what constitutes complete, acceptable work.”

“Mostly the work is not done well even though I explain what I want done very clearly,” she told me.

“Ah”, I replied, “well then you may have to give him a picture of what you want.  You know, a sample of what you are looking for so that he can see what it actually looks like.  When my son was younger, we had trouble with him cleaning his room.  Even though Laurie and I would explain as clearly as we could, he never produced what we considered a clean room.”

“Then one day we cleaned his room and took a picture of it.  We used the picture to explain what we meant by such things as a “clean desk”, “clothes picked up”, and “bed made”.  We then posted the picture on the back of his door with a sign that said “Clean Room”.  After that he was very reliable at producing a clean room.”

“The picture provides the standard and gives immediate feedback.  Sometimes, our requests and explanations are simply insufficient to convey what is wanted.  And when that happens, you have to be more creative and find a way to show people what you want.”

Why the NRA Blew It Regarding Newtown

Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, made a fundamental mistake when responding to the massacre in Newtown CT last week. He used an understanding and an initiative conversation when he should have used a closure conversation.

Rather than use a closure conversation to acknowledge the magnitude of the tragedy, appreciate the shock, suffering, and heartbreak of the families and community, or offer any real condolences, he went right to attempting to explain, justify, and rationalize why Newtown had nothing to do with him or the NRA. Where people were looking for closure and some acknowledgement that perhaps it was time to step back and think newly about assault weapons, LaPierre offered only his arguments for why guns were not the problem, but that video games, Hollywood, and “bad people” were. And then, using an initiative conversation, he proposed putting more guns in schools.

It is no wonder people are upset and shocked by LaPierre’s response. He committed the same mistake many leaders do – they misuse the four conversations and are then surprised by the result. LaPeirre failed to provide any sense of closure, making both him and the NRA seem cold, detached, and out of touch with reality.

I suspect the public response would have been much different had he used only a complete closure conversation.

The Missing Conversation(s)

A program director in one of the colleges here at Ohio State is paying the price for not having the appropriate conversations with his boss, the dean of the college.

Kevin, as director of programs, is responsible for admissions into the undergraduate and graduate programs in his college.  In a recent conversation, he pointed out that registrations into one of the graduate programs was down almost 40%.  If, he pointed out, he was unable to substantially increase admissions in the next several months, his college would suffer a substantial loss in revenue and potential damage to its reputation.

When asked what happened, he indicated that the marketing campaign that had been planned was never fully or completely launched because the college’s communications director was, as he said “doing other things.”  I asked if he talked with the Dean about this, and Kevin said “Yes, I met with him on a couple of occasions and explained the situation and that if we didn’t get the marketing we needed, admissions would suffer.”

“Ok,” I asked, “but did you make a specific request of the Dean to have the communication director implement the marketing plan immediately?”

“No, the Dean knows this program is a priority, so I would expect him to put in the correction,” was Kevin’s reply.

“Well, has he put in the correction?’

“Not that I can tell,” Kevin replied dejectedly.

It is easy to blame the communication director and the dean for the current admission situation.  However, doing so ignores that one or more of the four conversations were missing.  Kevin appeared to rely on conversations for understanding to get the dean to take action, but never specifically asked for what he wanted done, when, or why though a performance conversation.  This is exactly the situation depicted in this Dilbert cartoon.

Further, even if we assume Kevin made a request, that he can’t tell if the dean has acted indicates a missing closure conversation in which he follows up with the dean.  It could be that the dean is willing to take a “hit” on admissions in order to achieve some other goal, but Kevin won’t know unless and until he has a closure conversation to get the current situation complete.

The results we get are a product of the conversations we have.  When we don’t get what we want or expect, the first place to look is at our conversations to see what is missing.

To Be More Effective, Give Your Boss a Deadline

One way to effectively manage a boss is to give her a deadline when she doesn’t give you one.

One of the complaints I frequently get from managers in my MBA classes is that their bosses rarely say by when they want something done.  Bosses say things like “when you get a chance”, “this week”, or “when you are done with what you are doing.”  Unfortunately, none of these is very specific and each leaves the manager open to criticism for not getting it done when the boss expects it.  As one manager put it, “I am clear of the value of giving a deadline, but my boss doesn’t and if I push him for one, he gets irritated. Any suggestions for what I should do?”

Yes, there is something you can do – give your boss a deadline.  How do you do that?  By telling her by when you will get it to her and ask if that will work.  For example, assume your boss asks something like, “I want you to prepare a summary of regional sales by product line and store and send it to me and all regional managers”, in which she doesn’t say by when she wants it.  You can reply, “Sure, I can have it done and sent out by 3PM this Friday, will that work?”  You have just given your boss a deadline.

Due dates are key ingredients in performance conversations and you can give anyone a due date even when they forget.

To Be More Effective, Ask Questions

Have you ever noticed that people could be much more effective if they would just ask for clarification?

A student of mine came up after I had handed back an exam and said “I don’t see why I lost these points (pointing to his score on a question).  I didn’t really understand this question, so I answered it the way I thought you meant it.”  Since the exam was a take home exam and he had a week to work on it, I asked “Why didn’t you contact me and ask for clarification like I said you could?  Numerous other students did.”  He replied, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

How often have you see people do work when they were unclear or uncertain about what they needed do or how and then hide behind an excuse like “I didn’t know”, “they didn’t tell me”, or even “I didn’t want to bother you”?  It is difficult to perform effectively when you are unclear about what is to be done.  And yes, there are people who can make asking for clarification uncomfortable.  But is avoiding the momentary discomfort of asking really worth the poor performance and damage to a reputation that comes with it?  Apparently the answer is “yes” for people like my student.

If you want to be more effective, it pays to have an understanding conversation when you are unclear or uncertain. A reputation for effectiveness is worth asking questions for.

To Be More Effective, Stop Making Stuff Up

One way to become more effective is to work on what is real, not on what you made up.

I recently showed the daughter of a good friend around the Ohio State campus.  She is interested in going to college, so I took her around OSU so she could get a feel for the.  As we walked, she explained she was thinking of going to a community college first to build up her resume and increase her chances of getting accepted to OSU.  My response was, “That’s a good theory you’ve made up about getting accepted, but why not apply directly to OSU first?  Then, if your application is declined, ask them what you need to do to get accepted.  At least then you will be dealing with what you really need to do, not some theory you made up.”

I don’t think my friend’s daughter is any different than the rest of us.  Rather than make a request that may be declined, we make up a theory that gets us off the hook for making the request.  Students in my classes frequently tell me they have to do some particular thing before they can take a class, or participate in a program.  But when asked, “How do you know, have you talked to the professor (program director)?”, they almost always reply “No”.

Think how much more effective people could be if they had performance conversations before they took action on the stuff they make up?

Absence of Communication Undermines Reputation and Future Change

I recently talked to Jeremy, a staff member whose organization is changing from one type of work structure to another.  Prior to the change, each work unit in the organization made recommendations on how the allocation of work in their area, who should do the work, and the timelines that should apply.  According to Jeremy, the recommendations were well thought out and developed through extensive individual and group meetings within each of the work units.  Once completed, the recommendations were forward to the Rebecca, the senior manager responsible for reviewing all the recommendations and determining how best to incorporate them in the new structure.

Everything seemed to work fine until Rebecca began informing the work units of her decisions.  According to Jeremy, Rebecca’s decisions ignored many of his work unit’s recommendations with no explanation why.  When he went to his unit manager to find out on what basis Rebecca was making her decisions, his manager replied “I don’t know”.  People in Jeremy’s unit were perplexed, confused, and upset.  They felt betrayed and there was a substantial increase in gossiping and complaining about Rebecca.  Some people even quit their jobs.

Change leaders like Rebecca have to make tough decisions and are accountable for those decisions.  But Rebecca could have reduced the damage both to her reputation and the future receptivity of people to change if she had engaged in understanding conversations with people prior to her decisions and closure conversations after.

Effective Communication Requires Responsibility

Whose responsibility is it to communicate?  Does a manager’s responsibility for communicating an assignment absolve the employee of their responsibility for finding out what the assignment is?

A student approached me at the beginning of class to inform me that, “I didn’t read the case assigned for tonight.  I wasn’t here last week and they [pointing to other students] told me you changed the case, but I didn’t know it.”  When I asked when he found out about the change, he replied “Just now, so I didn’t know to read it.”  I asked him, “Did you contact anyone in the class to find out what happened in your absence and if there was anything you needed to know about?”  Surprisingly, he replied “No, I didn’t think I needed to do that”, and returned to his seat, apparently forgetting (or ignoring) that he is responsible for any assignments even if he misses class.

Communication is two-way, which means both parties have a responsibility.  Managers have a responsibility to be clear on what they want, when they want it, and, if appropriate, how it is to be done.  Employees also have a responsibility – to be clear on what the assignment is, when it is due, and how it is to be done.  If employees are not clear, they have a responsibility to find out rather than hide behind the excuses “I didn’t know” or “I wasn’t told”.

The student could have demonstrated his responsibility by having a closure conversation.

Successful Change Uses the Four Conversations

Successful change depends on the use of the four conversations.  I recently led an MBA course on Leading and Managing Change to a group of practicing managers in which they were required to produce an “impossible change” – one that was currently well beyond their position and capability to produce.  In other words, they couldn’t “just do it”, but needed the assistance and cooperation of others.  At the end of the quarter, 75% of the class successfully produced their change.  And what was the secret to their success?  Their effectiveness in using the four conversations.

As one manager explained, “It is my assessment that the success of my change has been a direct function of the choice, use, and content of the conversations I used to communicate with members of my team to adequately illustrate the shared value of the desired future state I believed we could achieve.  I feel it is important to highlight the power of utilizing a well-placed closure conversation to establish my credibility with the Senior Bankers that comprised my team.  Upon the onset of my initiative, it was evident that many of the Senior Bankers were experiencing fatigue and frustration with the ongoing efforts to support the merger of Their Bank with Our Bank.  By connecting with these individuals through the use of closure conversations, I made a concerted effort to acknowledge the additional time and effort that they have already contributed to making the merger a success. Prior to this acknowledgement, the majority of the Senior Bankers were of the belief that few individuals “truly” understood how requests of their time to complete merger related tasks negatively impacted their ability to complete their regular job assignments.

“Providing the Senior Bankers with this recognition of their  efforts allowed many of them to move past their feelings of resentment towards being asked to accommodate a change in the way they conducted a profit analysis of  corporate clients.  Giving this recognition fostered my ability to successfully propose my initiative in a manner that enlisted their active support for the desired future state instead of exacerbating their previous state of dejection towards new demands on their time.

“I discovered the value that can be produced through deliberately planned conversations with the individuals whom I hoped to enlist in the support of my change.  This willingness to place faith in the success of my change as a product of communication allowed me to view the concept of a “conversation” as something more than interpersonal discourse.  I began to view the four conversations as a tool to be used to deliberately manage the evolution and direction of my change . In recognizing these conversations as a tool to be used in implementing of my change, I was able to view myself as a manager of change from the perspective of a “facilitator of action” rather than as an authoritative figure who viewed the accomplishment of  change as a function of ordering an action and expecting a corresponding re-action.”

Communication is key to the accomplishment of change, but not any communication.  As this manager illustrates, successful change is a product of using the appropriate types of productive conversations.