Why Your Message Is Not Getting Through

One way to describe my focus is “executive frustration.”  People typically call me when their customers or employees aren’t behaving the way they want them to, and I usually start hunting for clues in the blueprints of their service model. Customers and employees typically do exactly what an organization has set them up to do, whether intentional or not, and so the answer is often to tweak the model to change the behavior.  Once a service model is changed, however, the changes must be communicated in a way that the entire organization understands.  In my experience, when communication stumbles, there are three common culprits.

The first is a clash of expectations about volume.  Managers often think they’re communicating sufficiently, while employees feel like they’re getting very little information.  It’s typically managers who need to adjust.  Employees need to know a lot in order to focus, particularly in environments where uncertainty is high.  The things your people care most about may be on the line — everything from their sick child’s health insurance to the very core of their identities — and they have a very human need to manage their exposure to significant risk.  They have an obligation to fill in the blanks if you don’t, and ambiguity often gets interpreted negatively.

So be as thorough and clear as you can.  It doesn’t necessarily mean covering more territory, but rather going deeper with the territory you do cover.  Why are you moving in a new direction?  What is the specific cost imperative that requires 25% cuts?  How has the competitive landscape changed?  You hired your employees for their ability to inform their choices and ask smart questions — they’re not going to turn those skills off when the spotlight’s on you.

The second reason communication fails is that we underestimate the need for repetition and reinforcement.  Most executives I know only need to hear something once in order to internalize it.  And many choose to treat their employees with the same courtesy.  We’re all adults here, after all.  But the messages these executives are hearing “once” often get delivered in very intimate managerial settings.  They happen conversationally or in small groups, among collaborators with shared context, data and history.  They’re also typically followed by plenty of formal and informal opportunity for clarification.

This is rarely how messages are consumed in the broader organization.  Maybe the CEO gathers the troops and explains in a company-wide meeting that customer service is now a priority.  A few brave souls venture some clarifying questions during the Q&A session, but most soldier on and try to figure out the implications on their own.  Meanwhile, the message isn’t strongly reinforced by changes in organizational behavior.  Maybe employees continue to be measured on the efficiency of their customer interactions, or the responsibilities of the front line get more complex, making service even harder to deliver.  I wish these examples were exceptional, but they’re far too close to the norm.

Finally, communication depends on getting the tone right.  The vast majority of communication is non-verbal.  When frustration or anger creeps into your tone — particularly when the power dynamic is unequal — most people have a hard time focusing on the message.  It’s fight or flight time.  Your audience’s threat management system is kicking in, and most people are either plotting their escape or organizing their own communications arsenal for a rigorous defense.  In other words, when your tone is off, most reasonable people aren’t listening to a word you’re saying.

It’s safe to assume that someone, somewhere isn’t hearing you clearly enough. Consider these communications traps, and give them another shot.

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