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Effective Communication

The government adjusts the security alert status from code yellow to code orange. The national television news networks announce the change. You immediately launch your orange alert status program – or not. You'll probably do what almost everyone else does when the alert status changes – nothing. The government has alerted you to an increased security threat and you choose to ignore it. The reason for this inaction could be that you have too little information.

When the government first began to issue these alerts, people focused more attention on their television sets. With no new information, they waited to see if something happened during the heightened state of alertness. Over time, the announcements continued and people became numb to them so they ignored them. That was not the intended outcome, but there does not seem to be another choice. Think about the specific information they might tell you that would enable you to make a decision or take any particular course of action. Even if they were to provide specific information to a definite group, they would probably not be qualified to take any appropriate action.

As a leader in a large business, you may rely on a key set of information to track and report indicators of operational performance. When one of the dials or gauges enters a red zone, you have access to information and potentially a host of analyst experts to tell you what it means. Then you can take purposeful and meaningful corrective action. Alternatively, you could take the same approach as the government and simply issue an alert.

For example, one of the indicators you monitor is the cost of technical support services. This month, there is a huge spike in the cost of providing that service. You send out a high alert to the entire company that the cost of technical support service has entered a red zone. You share no other information, just the red zone alert. Some employees this will react in chaos and panic and others will simply ignore it. If you repeat this behavior, the organization at large will become demoralized, the result of continued blasting with alarming and threatening news while they remain powerless to do anything about it.

Transparency in communication requires a delicate balance between three key needs:

  • The need to disclose the facts and the reality of each situation,

  • The need to protect sensitive information, and

  • The need to generate appropriate action and behavioral response.

Saying too little can be very dangerous. The same is true for saying too much. Too much information creates opportunities for misinterpretation, as people search for relevant and actionable information to them. There is also a risk that some seemingly innocuous item of information is blown out of proportion.

The goal is to communicate enough relevant information to the audience to clarify the situation and to support the desired response. This is not the same as creating corporate ‘spin’. Spin is primarily a defensive mechanism design to communicate as little information as possible. The purpose of spin is to protect the company from things like inadvertent disclosure, misinterpretations and obscuring the truth. Information without the appropriate context has the potential to be misunderstood, ignored or mistrusted.

The context or relevance of the information is important.

"It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English - up to fifty words used in correct context - no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese." Carl Sagan.

The dolphins were trained to associate certain sounds with specific actions. As they respond to commands, they do not demonstrate an ability to respond in English. Nor do the trainers respond to the dolphins in “dolphinese”. We have demonstrated the ability of dolphins to interpret our communication in a context we created for them. Impressive, but we have not demonstrated any ability to communicate with dolphins in a context in which they operate on their own. Perhaps they communicate in ways and using concepts that are more sophisticated than individual words. We just don't know, and as long as we engage with them only in our context, we will not discover their real potential.

Fortunately, in your business, you work with human beings who have language skills very similar to your own, and they work in the environment of your business and your industry. Communicating with them in a context they can understand is a lot easier. That context should be pertinent to the issue, to the vision of your business, to your employees, and to your desired business results. Consider all of these factors when determining the nature, volume, and timeliness of information you communicate.

"Priority is a function of context". Stephen Covey.

Calling the fire department to put out a fire while you lie on the beach might be the wrong priority at the wrong place and time. You know there is a fire somewhere, so why not call the fire department just in case it is near you. That would be totally out of context and a huge waste of resources. On the other hand, if you are on the 30th floor of a hotel and you notice your room curtains going up in flames, then calling the fire department and making your way to the ground quickly is a high priority. That would be a contextual, urgent, and appropriate action.

You want people to take the correct action with the appropriate level of urgency and importance. To do this, learn to communicate with them in the right context. They will align their priorities with yours and get to work. ‘Spin’ leads to conspiracy thinking and fear. Too little information leads to apathy and no action. Too much information creates confusion and chaos. This is a potentially large drain on resources as people revert to putting out fires that don't exist or matter. Effective leaders work hard to communicate the right information in the right context at the right time to achieve productive engagement.

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