Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Communication Is More Than An Email

For nine months in 2005, the North American Head of Operations for a major European-based consumer products firm refused to talk with the Manager of their biggest plant in the U.S.

Nine months … astounding. One wonders why after a month or two, maybe three, that someone in the organization didn’t notice that this situation could be harmful to business. The awakening occurred when a precipitous drop in revenues was attributed to the inefficiencies and mismanagement of the Manufacturing division. The lack of communication between these two was cited as the key reason for the decline.

There’s genius in hindsight.

While this example borders on the extreme, it really isn’t all that shocking. Personality clashes are often a company’s major impediment to successful outcomes. From relationships on the shop floor to mergers of mega-companies, emotional reactions muddy what should otherwise be rational business dealings.

Is it really too much to expect straightforward, candid and considerate interaction in the workplace? Have we lost sight of the fact that a company is at its best when its people are productively communicating with each other?

If so, then anticipate problems.

Few factors are as important to an organization’s best interests as making certain that the arteries of communication are wide open and free flowing. The greater the clarity, frequency and candor, the less likely are the chances that day-to-day problems will fester and grow from molehills into mountains. Jack Welch, world-renowned business leader and former head of General Electric, echoed those thoughts in a recent address he gave via satellite to the Wits Business School in March of this year:

“It is important to communicate with employees. Tell them this is what I like about your work and this is what you can improve on so there are no gray areas.”

What wasn’t mentioned is the difficulty of many people to give or receive honest feedback. There’s often a hesitancy to be candid in corporate corridors. And even though it’s recognized that openness is vital to progress, many are threatened by it. They create “workarounds” in order to avoid direct communication.

It’s a top down issue ...

Leadership sets the tone. To encourage the kind of communication that benefits the organization, it’s incumbent upon senior management to actively demonstrate and promote a policy of “straight talk”. Obfuscation is always an obstacle.

A policy that is both non-threatening and rewards candor can replace emotional reactions with rational transactions. Eliminating those confusing gray areas and substituting a clear-cut communication style is a smart, sensible business practice.

There is no excuse for the workplace to devolve into a labyrinth of innuendo, misunderstandings, second-guessing and finger pointing because people are averse to speaking openly with each other. Witness the results of the firm mentioned above. Failure to communicate means what it says … failure.

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