“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 multi-directional 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 multi-directional communication, and the organization will live. Close those lines of multi-directional 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 multi-directional 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 multi-directional 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.