What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Known for his Dale Carnegie training expertise, Terry Siebert is writing to inspire leaders to reach their greatest potential. Leadership, today more than ever, may mean the difference between closing the doors or opening new markets. Every month, he'll post help with mindset, business tools and more. Read Full Bio

Peter Drucker once said that the three most bothersome management problems were motivation, time management and communication. It is probably no surprise that seminars with these topics continue to fill rooms of those eager to learn.

In interviewing decision makers at every level of organizations large and small, the most frequently mentioned of the three problems above is: communication or communication breakdown. What is really interesting about this response is that in most cases communication is not “the problem.” It is usually a symptom. The barriers to communication, or the underlying causes of the symptom, tend to fall into a few categories:

Many people, through no fault of their own, tend to think that the rest of the world is on the same page as they are. Have you ever had to communicate with a technical expert who assumes that you know their language and jargon? One of the most frustrating give-and-takes is the often futile attempt to get the expert to talk at a level that is understandable. Transfer that to an organization that is rolling out a new software program with technical experts who cannot transfer their knowledge to their learners.

To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a _______. We all know how to fill in the blank. Now, get into a team meeting with operations, purchasing, sales, distribution, and the controller. Is it possible that these points of view might impact the potential for clear communication and direction? Absolutely!

I recently talked with an individual who said it was difficult to find the “right time” to talk with her boss. In order to sell her ideas internally, she always had to wait until the boss was in the right mood. No right mood, no idea acceptance. In more than one case, a good idea never even got to the table because timing was never just right. Lee Iacocca said that the “kiss of death for a manager is the inability to get along with people.” If a manager is as unapproachable as the one mentioned above, sooner or later their management career path will come to a halt.

A department head in one of our client firms was very close to the final steps of letting go a formerly reliable, long-term customer service representative. The rep’s behavior and rudeness with customers had reached the breaking point. After some discussion, I suggested that she try to find out a little more about the causes of the problem — something she had not done. When a real in-depth and caring conversation actually took place, the boss discovered that the employee was dealing with severe personal problems. The good news is that the rep is still there and working with help from this firm’s employee assistance plan.

The Trap

The four areas above are not the only four underlying causes for communication breakdown. There are others. The point is that people go to listening seminars, communicating with difficult people seminars, team-building seminars, and the list goes on. They go to the seminar, but do not change their habits and behavior.

The trap is that the focus in these seminars for many people tends to be on the other person. They do not see themselves as being part of the problem. Therefore, when they hear of assumptions, viewpoints, attitudes and feelings they keep thinking of all the other people with these problems. They have a difficult time looking in the mirror. Many have heard Pogo’s famous cathartic statement: “I met the enemy and he is us!” Until one realizes that “he is us,” the first real step to improvement cannot be taken.

To get out of the trap, one of the first suggestions is to look in the mirror and honestly do a critical self-evaluation. This could involve a personality-type test, a 360-degree feedback instrument or just asking for and listening to the candid comments of those one trusts. The critical next step is to actually follow through on changing the underlying causes — not just the symptoms.

In an organization, the suggestion is to do the same thing. And as mentioned above, once the analysis is completed and action plans are formulated, follow through must happen. There are some organizations that are more focused on the survey work than the follow through. It does not make much sense, but it certainly exemplifies the downside of the “paralysis of analysis.”

In summary, watch out when addressing communication problems. You might either be trying to fix a symptom or, even worse, aggravating the root cause. Whether it is communication or any other issue, the right solution to the wrong problem is far more dangerous than the opposite.

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