"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. " -George Bernard Shaw
What is not being communicated can kill your business, your reputation, or your people. An exaggeration? Let’s examine some of the major calamities from the distant and the recent past. Most of them, if not all, have one common denominator: the absence of a climate of open multidirectional communication.
It is April 15, 1912. A marvelous-designed and once-thought-to-be “unsinkable” vessel strikes an iceberg and sinks in the North Atlantic Ocean, killing 1,502 people. Go back a few years before this tragedy and you will find another “iceberg” that struck the vessel. During a corporate meeting, engineers were attempting to communicate a number of mechanical flaws and the unsatisfactory safety capacity to senior-level management.
Did they listen? You guessed it. Management didn’t and, eventually, the engineers gave up. One of the authorities stated that during the meeting, “the first-class cabin carpet color was discussed for hours and the lifeboat capacity was given just 15 minutes.”1 The name of the ship? Again, you guessed it, the Titanic.
Paradoxically, while history normally refers to the physical iceberg in the North Atlantic as what caused the Titanic to sink, the “iceberg” of corporate communication restrictions also contributed to the catastrophe.
An isolated case? Not even by a stretch of the imagination.
Let’s review both the Space Shuttle Columbia accident of February 2003 and the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Besides the physical causes of these fatal accidents, the investigations revealed communication breakdowns in both instances. Let’s briefly examine the Space Shuttle accident. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report stated that, “…organizational barriers [in NASA]… prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion…”2
Similarly, after the BP Oil Spill, the White House Oil Spill Commission said that, “bad management and a communications breakdown by BP and its Macondo well partners caused the oil disaster…”3
The list of calamities goes on. Senior managers and executives who did not listen to employees attempting to alert leaders about flaws in a strategy; medical doctors who didn’t pay attention to nurses’ observations, as they were trying to save patients; CEOs and senior executives enamored with their own idea of a new product which failed, despite the marketing team’s attempts in communicating the risk associated with their concept and…well…you get the point.
How humble, sagacious, or wise do managers, senior executives, and professionals in general have to be in order to listen to people with information that can save their organization, save their reputation, and save lives? How many more industrial disasters, oil spills, financial crises, medical errors, space shuttle accidents, and other catastrophes have to take place for leaders to take their people’s input earnestly?
Courageous and focused leaders know that it is best to leave their egos behind and listen to their people, even to the unorthodox or nonconformist employees, since many ideas which can improve the organization, can come from such individuals. The very best managers, in fact, want to hear the bad news. What’s the use of a manager, anyway, if he/she cannot or will not tackle issues? The best leaders want to know what’s wrong, not only what’s right, so they can support and empower subordinates.
Again, what is not being communicated can kill your business, your reputation, or your people. The flow of information is like breathing. Open the lines of multidirectional communication, and the organization will live. Close those lines of multidirectional communication, and you will suffocate the organization. So please don’t let the postmortem read, “Traumatic corporate communication asphyxia caused by management’s restraint of communication flow.”
The “I-know-best” attitude doesn’t work. That is true today more than ever. Modern businesses, organizational dynamics, changes, and conditions are extremely complex. Managers and senior executives cannot be everywhere at the same time, and getting input from other staff members and supervisors means multiple eyes and multiple brains aiming at the same goal: to solve problems.
These leaders are brave enough to make clear that no one will be chastised for speaking the truth. They ask staff members and subordinate leaders the hard questions. Here are some of them:
- What am I missing?
- What can I do better?
- How can I support you?
- What risks am I ignoring?
- Can you give me a real sanity check?
- What are the weaknesses of my strategy?
- Are we getting input from the key experts?
- What have your people heard from customers?
- What can we learn from the last project?
- Do you find our vision directional, inspirational, and memorable? What do your people say? How do you know?
- Did I identify the right assumptions supporting my strategy?
- What have we learned from past mistakes that we are not applying now?
- Who are the stakeholders who may be affected by this decision? What do they say? What systems do we have in place to capture their opinions? Who is replying to them? How frequently?
To get the full benefit of the answers to the questions above, make it safe to approach you. Don’t shoot the messenger or the employee trying to make a recommendation or attempting to report a grave matter.
When leaders cannot or will not listen, employees give up and rumors spread: “Don’t even try to go to the boss with that problem!” “Why are you going to report it? Do not even bother – he will not handle it!” or “The last time I offered an idea to increase sales, the boss told me it was just impractical.”
Results? Employees will see problems, but will not report them. They will have ideas, but will not offer them. In addition, you can kiss trust goodbye. Game over! Who loses? You and the organization!
Open communication should apply to all, to include those with different, untraditional, and even unpleasant points of view and ideas. It is easy for leaders to limit their communication to an inner circle of agreeable and, somewhat, ego-booster subordinate leaders.
Have you noticed how these circles can be characterized by much disingenuousness and craftiness? Even worse, when leaders only listen to those who agree with them, they don’t get the whole picture of what is really happening and what is likely to happen – just an ambivalent notion. The results? Calamities!
I can hear comments, “But that’s hard; it takes courage.” My reply: Of course. What can you expect? When managers and senior executives accepted their roles and titles, they committed themselves to make the tough calls in pursuit of continuous improvements. Sometimes that requires the necessary courage or intestinal fortitude to put egos aside and do the hard right, not the easy wrong.
So insist on candor and openness; otherwise, the communication will not be effective and, consequently, you will not get the benefits associated with a candid and multidirectional flow of ideas and information.
Did I say, “benefits”? You bet. What benefits? Plenty! Here are some of them:
Making interdisciplinary connections, comparing perspectives, clarifying conclusions, defining problems, exploring arguments, finding major safety or security issues, evaluating actions and policies, exploring consequences and implications, appraising assumptions, identifying apocryphal stories that others have believed for months or even years, making predictions, and finding grave information that can prevent disasters – just to mention a few.
Given the complexities of modern organizations and their conditions, we all can benefit from each other’s input and observations. There is no quintessential thinker. By nature, we are egocentric thinkers. Resist that temptation. People don’t naturally value the input or opinion of others. Furthermore, we do not understand the restrictions, flaws, and shortcomings of our own reasoning or opinions. Critical thinking authorities, Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, have brilliantly addressed this conundrum. They say, “We do not naturally recognize our egocentric assumptions, the egocentric way we use information, the egocentric way we interpret data, the source of our egocentric concepts and ideas, the implications of our egocentric thought. We do not naturally recognize our self-serving perspective.”4
"When all think alike, then no one is thinking. " -Walter Lippmann
The “I-know-best” approach doesn’t work. Modern business and operations are not only complex, but super complex. With gazillion pieces moving simultaneously at various levels, and across various time zones, how could possibly managers see and control all operations, procedures, and projects? While senior leaders can’t, supervisors at various locations are able to provide oversight. Besides, senior leaders may see operations, but from an airplane, whereas supervisors see them on the ground.
Let them be your eyes and ears and let them come to you with information, however distasteful. Be open to new ideas and information. Seek different points of view. Reward those who frankly communicate and find flaws in your strategies, points of view, and choices, not the yes men/women. The former will save your organization, the latter will only save your ego, but only for a short time.
Let’s face it. Most issues in our organizations are the result of poor decisions and poor decisions are the result of poor communication. Open the lines of communication in all directions. Keep them open and ask good questions. Remember: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell a man is wise by his questions.”5
No management task is complete without effective communication, and effective communication means open multidirectional communication.
Here are other questions to mull over:
- Have you assigned a sounding board? Who is that trustworthy and seasoned professional who can and will verify the validity of your ideas?
- Do you talk about creativity, but at the same time ignore or even chastise employees who have different ideas? Innovation is directly proportional to the work atmosphere. If people feel accepted and free to express what they are thinking, you will get ideas and solutions.
- Do you tolerate failure? Nowadays it is best to establish an environment where people can learn, instead of feeling they are walking on eggshells.
- Do you reward those who speak out or berate them because they are “not getting with the program” or because they are not a good “cultural fit”?
- How does communication flow in your company -- from the top down? Both ways? Is it really omnidirectional?
- When was the last time that someone pointed out flaws in your strategy or project?
- When was the last time that one of your employees had the intestinal fortitude to stop you from making an injudicious decision?
Reflect upon your answers. Determine if you need to focus more on an open multidirectional communication climate. Above all, be brutally honest with yourself. Can you?
1. Rob Bogosian and Christine Casper, “The Leading Cause of Corporate Calamity Is Leaders Who Don’t Listen,” Entrepreneur, May 19, 2015, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/246376 (accessed: April 25, 2021).
2. Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Volume I, August 2003, Executive Summary, https://history.nasa.gov/columbia/Troxell/Columbia%20Web%20Site/Documents/Congress/House/SEPTEM~1/executive_summ.html (accessed: April 25, 2021).
3. The Guardian, “BP Oil Spill Blamed on Management and Communication Failures,” https://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/dec/02/bp-oil-spill-failures (accessed: May 16, 2021).
4. Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, (Foundation for Critical Thinking, Seventh Edition, 2016), 21.
5. Naguib Mahfouz, 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Jose Marrero is the Director of Special Projects and also teaches Applied Leadership and Communication in the Economic Development Department, Columbus Technical College. The seminars that he designs, develops, and delivers focus on achieving long-term results in the workplace. His four-decade professional career, three of which spent serving in the US Army, includes assignments such as: Teaching at the United States Military Academy, West Point; Commander on multiple occasions; Strategist at the Strategy, Policy, and War Plans Division in the Pentagon; Operations Officer at various levels; Chief of Staff; Military Advisor to a US Ambassador; and Senior Analyst at the White House ONDCP, Washington, DC - among other regular and special assignments. Above all, Jose has proudly led Soldiers to perform meritoriously under uniquely difficult and challenging conditions. He is a member of the International Foreign Language Honor Society (Phi Sigma Iota) and earned a Master's degree from Vanderbilt University.
Critical Corporate Communication: What Is Not Being Communicated Can Kill Your Business, Your Reputation, or Your People
"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. " -George Bernard Shaw What is not being communicated can kill your business, your reputation, or your people. An exaggeration? Let’s examine some of the major calamities from the distant and the recent past. Most of them,Jose Marrero Articles
Communication concepts in the leader-follower relationship are important because they provide a clear presentation of some helpful techniques about how individuals can evaluate their own communication abilities. Most importantly, one can improve his or her own communication skills by adhering to developing and earning trust by acting, thinking, and decision making in the right manner, learning how to gather information, being open to dialogues, developing effective skills, and being able to read between the lines. These are essential, fundamental tools that are necessary in global environments and cross-cultural communication, because of the roles they help leaders develop as they are striving to become more successful as they embark on a journey of effective leadership.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION?
In order to improve communication with respect to the leader-follower relationship, one should observe the following prerequisites:
i. Maintaining trust: One should be aware that people are likely to forgive many things where trust exists as opposed to where there is no trust. In addition, great leaders also demonstrate the need to get personal as far as communication is concerned. The essence of getting personal is to help an individual be truthful as much as he or she can. Getting specific is another rule of thumb if one is to improve his or her communication because it removes ambiguity (Myatt, 2012). This calls for the need for one to learn to communicate with clarity based on simplicity and conciseness.
ii. Learning techniques to gather information: Learning how to gather information while transferring ideas, aligning expectations, inspiring action, and spreading the vision is another significant aspect to improving one’s communication. An individual can improve his or her communication by developing a ‘servant’s heart’ through focusing on contributing to the overall communication matter than just receiving. It is apparent that one is able to improve his or her communication when he or she seeks to contribute to the overall communication subject more than just receiving information from other parties. In addition to this, one has to have an open mind in order to improve his or her communication. An inflexible mind is a toxic factor of new opportunities for leaders and thus a leader-follower relationship must ensure that individuals are open to dissenting and opposing positions (Myatt, 2012). An individual who wants to improve his or her communication must also be open to new ideas and dialogue to demonstrate the willingness to engage in a discussion with an open mind. The foundation of morality is through empathetic engagement in all aspects while influencing followers towards the attainment of common goals.
iii. Developing effective listening skills: Listening is very important in the process of improving communication since through active listening actual understanding of what has been said is achieved by leaders and their followers. Listening also plays a vital role in ensuring that the leader gives effective and the right feedback in response to what has been heard and understood. Besides, listening ensures that the leader is put in the mindset of serving his or her followers. Thus, the author of this popular press magazine is convinced that developing effective listening skills is an important technique for helping an individual to improve his or her communication (Myatt, 2012). In addition to effective listening, empathy is another fundamental communication technique in the leader-follower relationship. Effective leaders must demonstrate that they care about their followers by avoiding prideful arrogance and ego. Also, they must demonstrate emotional intelligence by being in a position to diagnose, understand, and manage emotional cues based on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill. This should be coupled with the ability to possess a personal understanding which includes the ability to deal with emotions, general performance, as well as the ability to demonstrate self-control, trustworthiness, adaptability and ability to lead others (Patterson et al., 2007). Hence, an individual can improve his or her communication by taking responsibility and accountability as a virtue that connects ethics and integrity.
iv. Reading between the lines: The ability to read between the lines is another essential communication technique in the leader-follower relationship. This allows an individual to reflect upon their ideas and thoughts in the conception stage before they present them to their followers. Ultimately, this ensures they become aware of the implications of their ideas, opinions, and thoughts to their followers. As such, an individual can evaluate his or her communication by determining whether he or she reflects upon their communication content before conveying it to their followers. An individual must be reflective of their thoughts and ideas in order to challenge assumptions (Lokhorst, 2016). This is an imperative initiative since it allows leaders to think strategically by conducting an evaluation of their business model, organizational and staff structure, and customer base.
THE ROLE OF A LEADER IN GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTS AND CROSS-CULTURAL COMMUNICATION
All these communication strategies are essential in global environments and cross-cultural communication in the following ways:
First, effective communication entails the ability to communicate across cultures through appropriate ethical language while respecting others. Ethical concerns also contribute to the challenge of leadership in global working environments. Managers are expected to possess the ability to communicate effectively across cultures through using appropriate ethical language. This should be accompanied with respecting viewpoints of people from different cultural groups in the workplace. The shifting scope of businesses’ operation from local and regional contexts to increasingly global contexts requires successful leaders to possess attributes such as cultural flexibility, emotional intelligence and economic competence, collaboration and control, and effective control (Myatt, 2012).
Employing ethical principles in global working environments also includes the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment, navigating cultural, linguistic, and economic differences, operating in an insightful manner at a personal level, and providing honest information to all stakeholders in the leadership context. This, therefore, makes the leader communication styles imperative.
These communication strategies also enhance co-existence and positive relationships. This is by ensuring that leaders develop emotional intelligence and cultural flexibility, as well as fostering an environment that motivates followers by providing incentives and other necessities to achieve a desired goal (Lokhorst, 2016). The global working environments require the practice of embracing multiplicity or a mixture of individuals from a wide range of cultures, ethnic groups, religions, genders, and sexual orientations among others. Leaders are also expected to meet technological, economic conditions, labor conditions, and social and cultural standards. This is through understanding ethical concerns, customer needs and motivations, information, and choice available to the workforce, addressing globalization, and corporate governance concerns (Patterson et al., 2007). Those who want to improve their communication with respect to leader-follower relationship need to maintain continuous leadership skill development. This is vital in global working environments and cross-cultural communication.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
The communication strategies discussed provide invaluable lessons about leadership with respect to leader-follower communication relationships. To begin with, the changing nature of business operations from local to global environments has led to the evolution of the concept of leadership. The speed of change in all spheres of life demands an entirely different leader to lead in global environments and cross-cultural communication contexts. The leader must strive to adapt rapidly to change and be engaging in constant skill development to lead others to the desired direction. In all these, cultural flexibility is a fundamental leadership competency in global environments. It entails the need for one to demonstrate the ability to be willing to submit to another cultural way of life without feeling anxious or alien-like feelings. In the leader-follower relationship, emotional intelligence is one of the communication imperatives. One must, therefore, demonstrate a deeper understanding of their emotions, weaknesses, strengths, drives, and reactions to problems to know how to handle themselves in different situations. This is particularly important when interacting with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. Of ultimate importance in improving communication with regard to the leader-follower relationship is the ability to read between the lines. This is an essential communication technique in the leader-follower relationship because it allows an individual to reflect upon their ideas and thoughts in the conception stage before they present them to their followers. This is the most important stage for if the leader does not get it right here it will not carry over well to the followers.
How you start a project could very well be how you end one.
In essence, the beginning is the end.
Lokhorst, J. (2016). The secret to successful organizational change. Outcomes Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.christianleadershipalliance.org/about
Myatt, M. (2012). 10 communication secrets of great leaders. Forbes. Retrieved January 11, 2017, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/04/04/10-communication-secrets-of-great-leaders/3/#1be23a634c91
Patterson, K., Dannhauser, Z., & Stone, A. G. (2007). From Noble to Global: The Attributes of Global Leadership. Servant Leadership Research Roundtable. Retrieved from https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/sl_proceedings/2007/patterson_dannhauser_stone.pdf
The Importance of Communication Concepts in a Leader-Follower Relationship
Communication concepts in the leader-follower relationship are important because they provide a clear presentation of some helpful techniques about how individuals can evaluate their own communication abilities. Most importantly, one can improve his or her own communication skills by adhering to developing and earning trust by acting, thinking, and decision making in the right manner, learningPriscilla J. DuBose Articles
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