And start leading.
Communication is the “canary in the coalmine” of organizational dysfunction. But unlike the coal miners who understood the danger and knew when it was time to act, organizational leaders too often ignore it, work around it, or double down on what isn’t working.
And, part of the reason is that communication is a two-headed monster – sender and receiver. Each can easily blame the other for its breakdown. This is classic human relationship stuff: You never told me vs. you weren’t listening. I don’t want this vs. you need this. I don’t check that vs. that’s where I sent it. Who’s right? Who is to blame for the breakdown?
If you are leading an organization with communication challenges, these questions don’t really matter. You know that poor communication is generating unnecessary risk and employee stress, reducing productivity and performance, and ultimately, losing money for your company.
And, in hospitals, this can literally impact life and death – not just the company bottom line.
It’s ebola and flu and other emerging updates and critical protocols. It’s drug shortages and emergency alerts. It’s technology and equipment outages. It’s critical research and best practices. It’s physician performance metrics.
Delivering this content through mass emails or other “spray-and-pray” tools just generates noise and wastes time - which further erodes communication.Research at one academic medical center reported that a single physician received 2035 mass distribution emails from the center over a 12-month period, at a cost of as much as $4900 per physician per year.
Improving communication requires change; changing workflows, technologies, expectations, investments, and so on. And, most people don’t exactly love change.
But, as the saying goes, “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
Have you ever met someone who talks constantly?
Most of us probably have. And, typically, the constant talking drives us crazy. It’s about them. It’s on topics we don’t care about. It’s too fast to consume. It meanders into a string of non-sequiturs. It’s not a time we are ready or able to listen. We have more urgent things to tend to.
There are a lot of reasons the constant talker drives us crazy, and, in time, most of us end up tuning out and will probably avoid that person in the future.
Have you ever met someone you only wanted to listen to?
Most of us probably have met incredibly compelling people to whom we could listen longer than most anyone else. We love what they have to say. But, most of us, by nature of that person’s compelling ideas and our own engagement, also want to ask them questions, want to respond with our own ideas and processing. Maybe we need something clarified, or just want to know more about something they skimmed over.
There are definitely people out there we want to listen to, but rarely do we ONLY want to listen.
Have you ever met someone who seemed never to talk at all?
Whether it was an awkward first date, a silent co-worker, or a friend-of-a-friend who didn’t say much at dinner, most of us have had the experience of attempting to communicate only to get little-to-nothing back. And, often, it leaves us questioning the relationship: do they not like us? are they just unfriendly? did I do something wrong? what am I missing?
Communication is at least two ways and most of us are left wanting when we feel what we are trying to give or share is not reciprocated.
Effective communication is about a lot of things. Frequency. Dose. Engagement. Relevance. And, the nature of these changes over time. So, ultimately, communication also requires a Relationship.
As they say: You have to know your audience.
My one-year-old daughter talks constantly. Truly. Constantly. She has her own language.
She goes on and on, high and low, back-of-the-throat to the top-of-the-lungs, making all kinds of odd and funny sounds. Her brows furrow (got that from Dad). Her eyes look around for some acknowledgment. She pauses. Smiles. My wife and I talk back, acknowledging, reinforcing, and doing all we can to encourage her expression. But, she quickly becomes frustrated (also from Dad).
First the arms go up! Then they start waving around. The hands slam down. She arches her back, torques her body left and right. The “sweet” sounds of a baby start to be replaced by shrieking sounds of frustration. The pitch gets higher. The crying begins. Now, she’s just angry.
We scramble to hand her food. Water. A bottle. A toy. We pick her up. Pass her around. Try playing peek-a-boo. Sometimes, one of these is the right response; sometimes not.
We are scrambling, but failing to communicate; and it is wearing all of us out!
I couldn’t help but think about how this dissonant dance of ineffective communication remains almost humorously consistent from toddler to Fortune 500 (although the resulting behaviors may be slightly different). We have all worked with individuals and in organizations that are frustrated, exasperated, and exhausted because of bad communication. We all know their versions of the give-and-take of the parent and child described above. We all know it isn’t pretty (for one, it lacks cuteness).
For my daughter, learning to talk isn’t just about making sounds. Ultimately, she will have to learn words. She will have to learn to string them together to make phrases and, then structure sentences that others understand. She will learn context (a time and a place for certain words and topics). She will learn tone, (and then forget it as a teenager). She will develop her own voice and understand how it can support, or get in the way of, her communicating. She will explore a variety of mediums to deliver her thoughts and insights and ideas, and figure out which ones work best for her and for particular audiences.
If it is this complicated for my daughter, then for organizations it is exponentially more so. Despite what most of us call communication, it cannot be as simple as clicking “send.” For organizations, it’s also about structure, context, tone, voice, medium, and audience. And, given the complexity of organizations and the unique relationships within them, these elements are also much more dynamic.
Knowing your audience, for example, is deceptively complicated. Good communicators understand that they have many audiences who communicate in many different “languages” even within one organization, perhaps even one department or division. They know that these audiences, like the individuals who make them up, change over time. And, the right context or tone or voice or medium will vary for them at different times.
Communication, therefore, is not a singular concept, and it is certainly not static. It is a skill that develops, evolves, and must be actively nurtured, invested in, and evaluated – whether for the individual or an organization.
And, contrary to most of our practices, communication doesn’t start with us. It starts with our audience; and we have to learn their language.