Please don't tell me to improve communication

2007

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard it said in an organization: "Our communication needs to improve." Although it may well be true, it's a statement that is about as useful as standing in the rain saying, "our clothes are getting wet." General statements of the obvious don't solve problems.

My gripe with the instruction to "improve communication" is that it's too broad. It's vague. It leaves wide open the options of what should be done. The result? Nothing much gets done. Because such a directive outlines no detailed particulars, "communication" will remain fuzzy, despite all calls to improve it.

As evidence that "communication" is an overly-broad term, Amazon.com lists over 374,000 entries in their books section alone when doing a search for the word on their site.

Solutions are found in the specifics. Which communication method should be used? How often? For what reason? What guidelines or parameters will be established?

When everyone is made aware of and adheres to agreed-upon protocols, "communication," as it were, will improve.

Essentially, don't say "we need to improve communication." Be very specific. Something like, "We need to start using X twice a day / every morning / once a week / every month / etc. so that Y gets addressed, and Z will be our guidelines."

Here are some specific tools with a few pros and cons for each:

Email

Pros: Fast and free (love that). It also creates a written record of conversation. It allows for rapid responses and multiple participants. Can be used among remote team members.

Cons: Inbox overload—too many email messages dilute their impact. Cyberspace is not as reliable as many of us think (email gets lost, or 'stuck' somewhere). Intentions can be easily misinterpreted (words are only 7% of communication – voice tone and facial expression are missing).

Intranet and/or Internal Blogs

Pros: Much the same as Email—fast, free, a written record, and rapid response capability. Big benefit: reduction of email. Centralized and web-based, accessible anywhere the Net is available, regardless of email availability. Additionally, RSS feeds can notify team members whenever additions are made.

Cons: May require ramp-up training.

Teleconferencing

Pros: Voice tone adds much understanding. Allows for remote participation. Get rapid decisions.

Cons: No body language possible. Technology can be spotty—especially if using mobile phones. Coordinating meeting times is necessary.

Face-to-Face Meetings

Pros: Face-to-face greatly improves transfer of knowledge/understanding/intentions (body language and voice tone are right there). Rapid decisions with instant team feedback.

Cons: Team members must be in one place. Coordinating meeting times can be difficult. Strong personalities may rule by visual intimidation.

Video Conferencing

Pros: Same as face-to-face but with the added benefit of engaging remote team members.

Cons: Coordinating times can be difficult, and technology may not be reliable. Requires adjusting to new technology – some ramp-up training may be required.

This list probably isn't new to most folks and it is by no means complete. I offer it only as a stimulus to think in terms of what communication channel might work best for each unique situation.

Reason: It's better to choose a communication tool co-workers will use. For example, if teleconferencing is the overwhelming preference for a particular team, there's no sense in forcing them to use videoconferencing just because the technology is available.

Forcing an unfamiliar technology on them may only serve to diminish the productivity of their meetings.

This is not to say that people shouldn't explore the benefits of using new technology. Just keep in mind that like anything else, a certain ramp-up period is always necessary when learning new tools. Good introductory training is a must for removing fears or other internal resistance.

My reason for focusing on this topic is that too often I've see production or design teams be told to "improve communications" after a stumble or a miscue. Person A didn't tell Person B that "X" was occurring, and it ended up costing the company a lot of money. Or Person A misinterpreted Person B's email, and a time-consuming mistake embarrassed the company.

The directive "you guys need to improve your communications" is a common reaction. But again, it's useless because it's too general.

To find a useful fix, the issue should be addressed just like any other problem:

  1. What exactly is the issue?
  2. What are the contributing factors?
  3. What factors are inhibiting a solution?

Agreement on the answers is a must. Then agree on a specific form and frequency of communication that bridges any existing gaps.

Whatever you do, don't say "we need to improve communication" and then walk away. Remember - solutions are found in the specifics.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Very interesting post. Agree 100% on the idea that 'communication' in general is far too vague to be a driver for action.

However, I have that the impression that you fall in another pitfall by jumping directly to describing the communication tools and channels. As you mention at the end, the most important step is the diagnosis of the problem and it must precede the choice of a specific solution. (Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your energy and your money on communication gizmos that really have no impact at all).

In the case of communication, a specific approach can be used to diagnose a situation:

- identifying who is the target of the communication (is it all the company workers? or all middle managers? or new recruits?, etc.) - identifying what is the objective of the communication (is it to reassure them? to mobilize them? to prepare them to something, etc.) - Then, as you correctly suggest, the choice of the message and the channel is usually straightforward.

Another aspect of the question is that, quite often, supposed 'communication problems' are only the visible part of a deepest problem, such as inadequate organization or poor leadership. In those cases, 'communicating' does not solve anything, and may even backfire.

Emmanuel Haton Gijon, Europe

Emmanuel - thanks for your comments. I couldn't agree more with your statement

... quite often, supposed 'communication problems' are only the visible part of a deepest problem, such as inadequate organization or poor leadership. In those cases, 'communicating' does not solve anything, and may even backfire.

As for the analysis issue, agreed there, too. As for any workplace problem, my three standard questions are 1. What results do we want? 2. What must we do to get those results? 3. What must we learn so we can do that?

Unfortunately, putting those questions in my column each week might get a litte monotonous. :-) But you're spot on regarding the need to figure out what's needed before writing a prescription for it.

Dan Bobinski