A Case for Better Communication in the Workplace

August 18, 2010

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Countless organizational problems are caused by a failure to communicate. In this guest post, James J. King, a consultant with more than 35 years' of management experience, offers his views on improving communication in the workplace.

Over the years, the single most recurring problem I've seen in organizations I've worked with is the lack of effective communication.

Communication between two or more people opens up a variety of interesting opportunities to be misunderstood. For instance, I've had more than several senior executives answer this question during formal and informal discussions: "Is there any one thing you think you have done well over the years to achieve your level of success in business?" Nine times out of 10, without hesitation, they respond, "My ability to communicate well."

Fast-forward to those further down in the organization: "What is the single biggest problem the organization faces day-to-day?" Their response: "Lack of communication."

Where's the disconnect?

Psychologists tell us that, on average, the adult human being is capable of holding a single thought without interruption, distraction or an additional thought popping into mind for about three to five seconds. Watch TV commercials, documentaries, newscasts, music videos — each scene lasts between three and five seconds, or 10 scene-segments for a 30-second commercial. Is it any wonder effective communication in the workplace and at home is so difficult achieve? It's rare to find an individual (other than in the military or law enforcement) who can adequately and effectively communicate a thought in three to five seconds. It isn't easy.

Why is it, then, that we have problems in the workplace with people not understanding what is expected of them? I truly believe people come to work each day wanting to do the best job possible. I truly believe people do not come to work each day smiling, thinking to themselves, "Ah yes, another day to screw things up." Yet, given the poor state of affairs in communicating the mission, vision and goals of the organization, is it any wonder why so many individuals and organizations are forced to strive for and, by default, achieve the mediocre?

Several years ago, I read a newspaper article about a new pitcher being brought in from Japan by a Major League Baseball team. A local reporter, interviewing the pitcher through an interpreter, asked, "How are you going to fit in here?" The answer: "Coach defined for me each of my personal goals, including how I will be used in the rotation, how I will be called upon in different strategic game situations, how I need to prepare for each game. This was all written down. Then he explained to me the other players' personal goals and how the collective goals made the players a cohesive team."

In this instance, language was no longer a problem. Communication was excellent. Winning became almost a given.

As far as your organization goes, are you able to identify the individual or individuals who set and communicate the goals for the organization? What type of feedback process is available in your organization for ideas or concerns? Does your organization promote or discourage candor and feedback? Do people truly understand their roles or are they guessing (most of the time) about what they are supposed to do each day?

With the chasm that exists between organizations' different layers, something goes missing; the great information and communications filter dilutes what is essential to success within the organization. Take a look around your organization and do an honest assessment of what you see. Ask people for their candid input regarding effective communication as they understand it, and act on what you hear, see and uncover.

More often than I care to admit, I see and hear management thinking employees have the necessary authority to do their jobs. The employees see it differently — as a much narrower version of authority. They feel accountable but not necessarily authorized or empowered.

Why is this? Often, it is because their narrow interpretation of authority is safe. Sticking one's neck out when one is unsure creates nothing more than opportunities for career-limiting decisions. This narrow focus exists primarily through poor or nonexistent communication and lack of a shared vision of what the organization is trying to accomplish.

Every organization is unhealthy to some degree, and communication is almost always right there at the top of the list of what needs to be fixed.

Do you have a unique perspective to share with IMT readers? Whether you're an established industry expert or a hard-working professional toiling away in today's economy, you can share your professional experience with others by becoming an IMT guest contributor. If you wish to share your own expertise, experience or insights into your area of interest, become an IMT contributor today.

James J. King has more than 30 years' of experience in quality, environmental, health and safety management systems consulting throughout his career. Jim's areas of expertise include business management system development, change management, environmental compliance, environmental and quality cost accounting and organization-wide communication. His experience also includes training and auditing for a wide variety of industries, including many of the Fortune Top 50 corporations. Jim is the author of The Environmental Regulatory Dictionary, 4th edition (2005), published by John Wiley and Sons. Jim can be contacted at Jim@JimKing.Biz. For more, visit JimKing.biz.

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