Monday, February 05, 2020

Why most “communication problems” aren’t

It’s become rather fashionable to see communication as the most common problem in organizations. While there are certainly situations when poor communications make problems worse—or even create them—errors in communication are far more likely to be symptoms of a more fundamental issue than the problem themselves. If you don’t recognize this, any corrective action that you take is going to be wasted.

I constantly come across people describing fresh “cures” for problems of communication in organizations. Sometimes it feels as if nearly every difficulty or source of discontent is labeled a “communication issue” as a matter of routine. On the surface, it may even look as if this is correct. Bosses and their subordinates routinely misunderstand and miscommunicate with each other. Information becomes garbled as it is passed through the organization. Customer queries are mishandled because what the customer wanted wasn’t clearly understood or communicated internally. Projects falter in a morass of poorly-communicated data and inadequate reports. Is it any wonder that trainers and coaches spend probably more time trying to help people with their communications that any other single topic?

When communications are bad, the real cause is likely to be something else.

With all the current emphasis on communications training and techniques, you might reasonably expect this to be a problem in decline. The fact that it isn’t makes me believe that, in most cases, people aren’t addressing the right problem. Difficulties with communications are just the symptoms of a more fundamental area of difficulty. They are not the source of the problem itself.

Communications break down for many reasons, but some of the commonest ones are these:
  • Pressure: When people are under pressure, they rarely pay sufficient attention to how they are communicating. They know what they want other people to understand, so they give out their message and turn away to get on with whatever is bearing down on them. Often, their communication is terse and demanding. After all, they don’t have the energy or time to mess about making sure the other person’s grasp of what they want is clear, let alone be concerned for their feelings. The result can be interactions that are brusque, insufficient and high-handed. Then, when things go wrong as a result, they blame the other person for being unable to grasp a simple instruction or request.

  • Haste: This produces much the same pattern of quick, superficial, poorly-handled communications. When mistakes and upsets occur, putting things right claims still more time, so any consequences of the original, poor communication are usually handled just as badly. Plus there is now anger and irritation to further mess things up.

  • Stress and tiredness: Overworked, stressed, exhausted people aren’t likely to communicate well. We all know that when we’re overtired and miserable, what we say isn’t likely to come out as we want it to.

  • Distraction: This probably produces the most destructive effect on communication. When people are distracted, as most people are today, they miss things out, fail to listen properly, lose track of the message part way through, and provide insufficient information for others to understand. Distracted bosses snap out partial instructions and wonder why their subordinates are so stupid. Distracted subordinates barely hear half of what is being said to them, so they get the wrong end of the stick and turn even simple tasks into a series of muddles.

  • Aggression: Aggressive bosses often take a delight in barking orders and making their subordinates do the hard work of finding out what they really mean. Besides, asking an aggressive boss for a more detailed explanation is likely to get you further examples of just how tough he or she can be with dim-witted team members. Better to say nothing, even if you subsequently don’t do the work properly.

  • Mistrust: When colleagues and people up and down the hierarchy don’t trust one another, communication is the first casualty. People withhold vital data out of fear that the other person (or department) will “misuse it:” usually a code for “use it against me(us).” Questions are treated with deep suspicion and answers become evasive. Getting information becomes an obstacle course, sometimes so bad that people give up and try to muddle through without it.

  • Politics: If individuals and groups are locked in political warfare for influence or status, communication becomes a weapon. “Spin” is more important than the facts. Knowledge is seen as power, to be traded only for political advantage, or withheld altogether to harm an opponent. Lying and deliberately causing mistakes and misunderstandings are seen as justifiable ways of waging political campaigns.

  • Fear: If someone is afraid of losing face, losing influence, losing power, or losing their job, they aren’t going to give away anything that they suspect might be useful, including information. Nor will they be open about anything that might be used to harm them. Communications will be censored, limited, and grudging at best.
While all of these are communication problems, none originate in difficulties with communicating. Improving someone’s communication skills won’t have any impact on them. Relationships won’t improve until the underlying cause is dealt with fully.

Communication seems to be the problem because it’s highly visible. The real problem is locked into the organization’s culture and systems.

What kind of corporate or management culture is characterized by pressure, constant haste, stress, tiredness, distraction, aggression, mistrust, office politics, and fear? The answer, of course, is our old enemy Hamburger Management: toady’s routine approach to running a business. The kind that disfigures corporations throughout the developed world, based on harassing people and demanding “results” whatever the cost in lives and relationships.

It’s no co-incidence that the epidemic of Hamburger Management has arisen at the same time that communications have become the number one concern of many HR people and consultants. Sadly, most of those well-meaning folk are merely trying to alleviate the symptoms, while ignoring the true cause. Most communications problems aren’t, because they’re really indicators of a corporate culture gripped by today’s macho, grab-‘n-go, short-term management orthodoxy. Until that is seen for what it is—as bad a cause of corporate cancers as smoking is of physical ones—no amount of fussing about communications will make any significant difference.

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Anthony Riley said...

I couldn't agree with you more Adrian. Of the projects with which I have worked, the failures have always been chalked up to poor communication. It was typically due to one of the underlying factors you identified. Most often a lack of respect and time given to understand the concerns of those most affected by the project outcomes. Meanwhile, those on high blame it on communication.

Too often managers, if they have time, try to open the one size fits all "communication plan" handbook to see how they should adequately approach this group of front-line personnel or how, on average, middle managers are likely to respond to this situation.

9:46 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Anthony.

I'm glad that you liked the post. Keep reading, my friend.

4:18 PM  
Phil said...

Cool post, some good things to think about, I'd seen these forms of communication problems but never realized it. The first thing that popped in my head to add to the list was.. lack of respect and lack of interest. If you don't respect someone you often aren't interested in listening, and of course you need to listen to gain that respect.

I reckon, from personal experience, it's possible to communicate successfully across language barriers, long distance and other difficulties. You've just got to want to.

6:11 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Great comment, Phil. Thanks.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:05 AM  

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