EC = C+E+L+L
Effective Communication Requires Caring, Explaining, Listening, and Living the Role
In my 25 years with the Baldrige Program, I have never come across an organization that lacked the opportunity to improve communication, no matter how good it already was. The importance of effective communication is demonstrated by the many articles and books written on the subject. As examples, Inc., Forbes, and Entrepreneur have all dealt with the subject over the past few years. Recently (as a scientist at heart) I have been reflecting on the possibility of reducing effective communication to a simple formula or acronym to help a person remember everything that is important. The result is the title and substance of this column. With an acronym, we frequently are more able to think through important communications in advance and make sure we are addressing all the considerations for effective communication. The cell phone is probably the most common vehicle for communication today; yet the use of texts and tweets have led to many mishaps in true communication, because of the absence of real-time dialog and sometimes inappropriate brevity. So I offer the acronym CELL (Caring, Explaining, Listening, Living), not the instrument!
When I think about communication, I always remember the following story, told to me in the first management course I took. A manager has just lost his job because he could not build an effective, high-performing team. He has the opportunity to meet his successor and shares with her some of the challenges of the job. He gives her three envelopes and says he hopes she will never need any of them, but should she ever get in trouble at work, they should be used in sequence. Again, he hopes that she will never need even the first envelope.
After two months on the job, she just isn’t gaining any rapport with her direct reports, so she reluctantly decides to open the first envelope. It has a simple message: “Blame your predecessor.” She blames her predecessor and that helps her break down some walls. But three months later, she can’t get her team to meet quality and productivity goals. She opens the second envelope. Again the communication is clear: “Offer encouragement that things are improving. Compliment the staff.” That works for almost a year, and then there is a complete breakdown within her team. In desperation, she turns to the third envelope, and the message is very clear: “Prepare three envelopes.”
How do we make sure that communication is as clear as those three messages, without having to resort to using the three envelopes? Let’s start with the simple definition I am using for effective communication: the system by which information is exchanged so that proper actions may be taken with confidence. Effective communication is not about the person delivering a message; it is about the needs of those receiving the message. As stated in the title of this column, I believe effective communication consists of four elements: caring, explaining, listening, and living the role.
CaringEffective communication begins with caring about the way you deliver a message and caring about the people whom you engage in dialog. Following are some key attributes associated with demonstrating caring and thus establishing a receptive audience for your message.
1. Keep the message clear and simple. If you are adding a lot of words, ask yourself if you are adding those words to clarify or to soften or blur the true message.
ExplainingEffective communication requires explaining your message in language that is appropriate to the audience and that gives all the necessary details.
1. Use multiple modes of communication for important messages and repeat the message. Some people receive information best when they hear it; others, when they read it. Some people want both or benefit from repeating the message with different words. Regular repetition of a message and dialog about implementation can emphasize key principles of behavior or operational importance.
Two examples of regular repetition come from Robert Galvin and Paul O’Neill. Robert Galvin introduced the world to Six Sigma quality as CEO of Motorola. I have been told that every senior management meeting he led started with a discussion of quality that frequently was the only focus of the meeting for him. He knew that all important business metrics would follow from that focus. Paul O’Neill, as CEO of Alcoa, had a relentless focus on worker safety. At his first meeting with investors, despite flagging financials, he spoke about safety on the job. His focus on safety in interactions with the workforce transformed the culture at Alcoa and resulted in a quintupling of Alcoa’s income during his tenure.
2. Share vision and goals. No one had doubts about what was important to Galvin and O’Neill (especially when goals are quantitative as in Six Sigma). Their unwavering focus was a powerful communication mechanism for setting context and gaining big-picture buy-in.
ListeningEffective communication requires good listening skills. I believe that listening well is as important as explaining well. Since no one person has a monopoly on good ideas, we all can learn as we listen to questions and complementary ideas. I was once told that knowledge is not gained by flapping your lips but, rather, by removing your ear wax.
1. Manage by walking around is a great process for active listening. Engaging in conversation at a person’s work area makes interaction less formal and more comfortable. It also allows observation of possible workplace challenges and the description of those in a visual context.
Living the RoleEffective communication requires living the values and messages you espouse.
1. Walk the talk. Once caught in a misstep, regaining confidence in you and your communications is a long uphill climb.
A Parting ThoughtIt is tempting to think of effective communication as the job of leaders, managers, and supervisors. While it is their job, it is not theirs alone. Effective communication is everyone’s job. It builds trust, teamwork, and high-performing organizations. If culture drives an organization, effective communication is the fuel.
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Dr. Harry Hertz, Director Emeritus
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program