Today we have a guest blog from Lauren Owen:
“I can’t believe he didn’t follow up on the request I sent. I thought my email was really clear.”
“But we had a meeting on this very topic and we all agreed on the action steps. I’d say only half the people who were at that meeting did what we talked about!”
“I don’t understand why people are still confused about our mission. We just had an all-company meeting where we announced our new mission statement at the beginning of the year.”
The above statements are familiar to anyone who has ever been a leader, worked for or with a leader. It’s certainly a common theme in many of the CEO peer groups and leadership workshops we’ve led.
As leaders, we think we’ve been clear: we sent the message out, by email, phone conference, meeting, or any number of methods, and……nothing happens. Or, something happens but it’s sure not what we thought it would be. Or, we find out people’s actual interpretation of the message is way off from our intention.
Are we, as leaders, simply bad at telling people what we want? Are people really so unwilling or obtuse? While both of these reasons might be true in some situations, we believe other factors are at work.
First, a story that illustrates my point. When Urs and I lead workshops, we usually start with an opening exercise that is designed to help participants warm up and relates to the day’s topic.
One of our favorite exercises for leadership workshops is this: we arrange participants in a close circle and have one of them start out by naming something in a classification, such as a type of car, for example, “Honda”. The kick-off person points to someone else in the circle and says “Honda”. Then that person in turn comes up with another type of car, for example, “Toyota”. This second person then points to another person and says “Toyota”. This goes on until each person has come up with a unique car name and told it to another person in the group until the circle is completed.
For each pattern, “cars” in this example, the same person says the same car name to the same person each time we repeat the pattern. We practice this pattern until the group can get through it quickly. It seems pretty easy until we add another pattern, for example, city names, only this time with different people giving different city names to different team members at the same time they are also working through the car pattern. Then we might add a third (and different) pattern to the mix.
Although we initially instruct each person in the circle that they are responsible for ensuring that their “receivers” gets the “word” (the name of the car or city) each time, inevitable once we add more than one pattern, for example cars plus cities plus states, one or more of the patterns breaks down: names of cities and states and car types start flying, sometimes two or three at one time and we eventually lose a pattern.
It’s only after we stop and then restart several times that most groups get into the swing of things and can handle several patterns going through at once without dropping a round. And it’s really only after we remind everyone that they are responsible for making sure their “receiving” partners really “get” the word, in this case, by deliberate hand gestures, eye contact and body language, repeating the word if necessary until they actually see their partner ‘get’ it, that the patterns start to flow quickly and completely through the entire circle.
So, besides getting people laughing, energized, and synapses firing, how does this relate to good leadership communication?
As leaders, we need to take responsibility for ensuring our team members “get” the messages we are giving. In our warm up exercise: what gets in the way of people getting our messages? Multiple messages sent at the same time, people not paying attention, people dumping and running on to the next thing while assuming/hoping that the message(s) that they gave got through to their teammates. Hmmm, what does this remind you of? A typical work environment for many of us! THIS IS VERY NICE!
For leaders, how might our behaviors change if we truly took responsibility for people “getting” what we are “giving”?
For one thing, we’d tell our messages multiple times in multiple ways. We might hold one on ones, followed up with an email or even follow up meeting. (Research backs up the efficacy of this multiple times, multiple methods approach). Click here to se Urs’ article on this very point.
We’d get over our fear of “redundancy” and concern that we are bothering people with repeated messages because we know it’s more effective. Patrick Lencioni, author of the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, says the best number of times for a leader to communicate something is not just a couple -- it’s seven. “It was reported, employees won't believe a leader's message until they've heard it seven times. Whether the real number is five or fifty-five does not matter, the message is – people are skeptical about what they hear unless they hear it repeatedly over time”. This is especially true as your organization grows in size and complexity.
- Before we ended any meeting, we’d ask each person present for their understanding of the action items discussed. We’d follow up with emails that detail the action step, person responsible and completion date.
- We’d figure out different ways to communicate the same message: one-on-one, email, conference call, team and company-wide meetings.
- Just like in our warm up exercise, you can give someone an instruction but there’s no guarantee they are going to get it until they actually try it out. How can we build in more “try outs” and post action debriefs when we are trying something new?
- We’d come up with ways to “test” people on their understanding of especially important messages such as company mission and values and we’d keep the discussion going. (Ideally we would include them in the development of these from the get go.)
Sounds like a lot of work? You bet, but likely not compared to the money, time and energy wasted from assuming people were taking the correct action when they weren’t.
I once had a very wise boss who said (many times!), “It’s a constant passing parade out there and you need to make sure you get your message across to each one as it goes by.”
Lauren works with businesses leaders who want to develop and execute succession plans, sharpen their business practices, strengthen their leadership, and create long-lasting value in their businesses. She is a certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Leadership Coach. She is also a leader of the Excell Puget Sound Southend Group.
(206) 427-2856, (253) 245.3518