Upon my return to New York last week, the high-speed internet connection at my home office had stopped working. It eventually dawned on me that both lines — phone, fax, and internet connection — were down. What started with a simple call to my phone provider turned into a communication fiasco. First, there were interminable wait times in the labyrinths of automated customer service menus (you've been there, I am sure). Once I finally connected with a live operator, three different companies (the phone provider, the internet service provider, and the internet connection hardware operator) had to coordinate efforts to make sense of the issue. Three different technicians came from the phone company alone, each throwing his arms up in the air and complaining about what his predecessor had done wrong. The last one, who finally fixed the fax line, said about his superiors: "I told them a thousand times what to do. But they just don't listen to me. To them, I'm the stupid guy." (As this goes to press, my high-speed Internet connection is still down.)
If communication fiascos happen with small technical issues like this, you can imagine what happens if you face real strategic or team challenges. Is your team in danger of missing a key organizational performance goal? Are you trying to motivate a colleague who has been procrastinating for too long? Is your boss acting out in a way that you entertain psychopathic thoughts whenever he opens his mouth? Or are you in the middle of negotiating with a potential alliance partner? Is your team lacking alignment on a strategy that you know is right for the organization? Is a client or prospect not calling you back or not being forthright with information? And how about that employee who is way too quiet — or too vocal — and is throwing the group off-balance?
All these challenges have one thing in common: to meet them, you must be a great communicator. And believe me, you are not alone. Bad communication causes problems all over the place. Companies go down, mergers fail, wars break out, families break up and people burn out — simply because people have stopped communicating.
Take the big office equipment company whose software engineers spent hours each week preparing for weekly meetings with their boss — though they all thought these meetings were a complete waste of time. Despite the lost hours and frustration caused by these meetings, none of the engineers would take the initiative to communicate with the boss. Worse, even the boss thought the meetings were useless, but he didn't want to cancel them; he feared that would discourage engineers from bringing new ideas to him. Both sides' inability to voice their true feelings cost the company thousands of man-hours of lost time, loss of productivity, and lots of overtime for engineers.
So despite the common belief that talking back to superiors is more difficult, it is just as hard for managers to communicate with their employees. Say you are leading a team: how do you keep your employees motivated, how do you have them take the infitiative and not free-ride on the work of others? Teams can simmer with intrigue. There are personal issues, competitiveness or even jealousy, and disagreements on how to get things done. And although sometimes you grow frustrated and feel like wielding power and making decisions unilaterally (after all it's a pain in the neck to work with other people), you know that this is not the way the workplace works now. In a world dominated by knowledge workers and free agents, dictating orders from above may work short-term but is not sustainable and virtually suicidal long-term. Full and forthright communication with employees, giving them useful feedback and asking for theirs, and giving them autonomy in how to get the job done, are keys to keeping free agents and knowledge workers satisfied and productive.
Of course, a participatory workplace brings its own problems. Not everyone is happy with decisions made; some people are brighter and more verbose, others are quieter and less active. Inequalities and differences of personalities and backgrounds can lead to discord and discontent. As a manager, your job is to minimize unproductive chatter and pull the best out of every team member.
Arrest Rumor and Gossip
If you or others have an issue at work, one ground rule is: don't gossip and don't spread rumors. In my book Communicate or Die, I call rumors and gossip one of four capital sins of speaking that can paralyze organizations. Rumor and gossip are usually about the personal affairs of others. A French phrase aptly sums up this way of speaking: "Les absents ont toujours tort" ("Those who are gone are always wrong"). The French got it exactly right: rumor and gossip are never communicated directly to the people whom they badmouth. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum from responsibility.
A few careless — or worse, maliciously and carefully placed — words can destroy what took years to build. Rumors and gossip have the power to damage the best organizations. They are possibly perhaps the most deadly ways of speaking.
Even if they did no other damage, rumor and gossip are costly at the least. If 1,000 people work for a company, each earns an average of $30 an hour and each spends an hour a day gossiping at the water cooler, over lunch or at the copier, the organization will lose $30,000 a day, or around $10 million a year. Not to mention opportunity costs — opportunities missed while people chatter away.
Rumor and gossip rise with uncertainty, so expect more of them now. The more people sense that their job is on the line, the less straight they will be to your face. Fear will block them from communicating honestly. At one of our clients, people had never been trained to say what they thought to each other's faces. In public, they said only the words they thought their superiors wanted to hear. Two people, the chairman and the CEO, took it to the extreme. Each of them called me overseas — each separately — to complain about the other, when their offices were about a three-minute walk from each other.
As I use the terms, rumor and gossip include complaining about an issue to people who have no power to do something about it. Most of us have that nasty habit. We complain to anyone and everyone except the person who can actually do something to resolve our complaint. If you are an account executive, complaining to other account executives about the VP of sales will only aggravate your issue, because all you do is gather evidence for your viewpoint instead of speaking to the VP directly. The person who complains only to co-workers who cannot act fuels the perception that "nothing matters," "we have no power to change things," "they never listen," or "life here sucks."
When enough people in an organization add enough of this fuel, the environment begins to mirror their complaints. Of course, the people doing the complaining have no idea that they had everything to do with shaping the environment they so vigorously oppose. They don't see that they literally speak that environment into being.
Minimizing rumors and gossip is essential for the health and productivity of your enterprise. How can you do that? I recommend three ground rules. First: No gossip. Second: Complain only to the person who can do something about it. That person is usually either the one who gave rise to the issue, or the manager in charge. For instance, if you have a complaint about how people are promoted at your company, the person to talk to might be the company president, the department chief, or the head of human resources. If that person cannot handle the issue satisfactorily, then you both need to determine a third person who can resolve the issue. The third ground rule: Offer not a problem but a solution. Don't allow people to delegate problems upward in the organization. Hold them accountable for solving problems.
The 9 Keys to Powerful Feedback:
Here are some rules that we have found essential to giving feedback that promotes solutions rather than escalating the issue:
- Don't withhold feedback—but time it wisely. Ask if the person is open to feedback.
- Talk straight and without judgments. Be specific and stay away from statements such as "that presentation was a disaster."
- Avoid characterizing people. Don't say "you're indiscreet" but rather "you spoke indiscreetly in the meeting."
- Avoid words like "always" or "never." Limit the feedback to one incident or behavior.
- Don't talk about what they did to you — talk about your perception, your experience. Not "you make me angry" but "I feel angry."
- Clearly distinguish between facts, your interpretation, and your or others' feelings.
- Make your expectations clear. State clearly what you expect from the colleague. Leaving things ambiguous results in unintended outcomes. If you are telling an employee that you are disappointed about her performance and would have expected more of her, but don't clearly specify what you expect, you are unlikely to get the results you want.
- Ask if they would be willing to work out a solution with you.
- Thank them.
In the end, what you say is what you get. Take Fernando Flores, who became Chile's minister of economics at twenty-nine &mdsah; one of the youngest in any country ever — and minister of finance in Salvador Allende's democratically elected government: "We don't realize how much we create reality through language." It took Flores several years in prison &mdsah; he was jailed after the government was overthrown in a military coup and he faced execution several times while his wife and children waited anxiously — to become crystal-clear on the power of communication to shape things. "If we say that life is hard, it will be hard."Yours,Thomas D. Zweifel