Your Signal Strength: Communication in Business
It was a game I played as a youngster; we called it ‘telephone.’ It was the game where students sat around in a circle whispering a message into the ear of the person beside them. When the last person got the message, he or she would say the message out loud. Naturally, after 30 students heard and interpreted the message, the message was completely different than the original phrase that started the game. Somehow “Friday is only two days away” would morph into “Fried cake is mainly today’s way,” prompting the students to laugh. The game is reminiscent of a scene in the 1996 film Multiplicity (Note: Language), in which Michael Keaton says “you know sometimes when you make a copy of a copy, it’s not quite as sharp as … the original.”
As in Multiplicity and in the children’s game, communication in business frequently breaks down and suffers from repeated interpretation of the original message. Communication from the top of an organization is often misconstrued and unclear by the time it gets to the working level. Sometimes, the message received is completely changed from its initial intent.
When it comes to running your business, it’s important to consider how communication will cascade through the layers of the organization. Remember that when the president of a business unit wants some information, he or she must speak with the vice president, who must talk to the general managers. The general managers must speak with the directors, who talk to the senior staff members. The senior staff must contact the second level managers. The second level managers work with the managers to get the information from the working level. Once the information is obtained, it must flow back up to the top of the business, and will again be subject to misinterpretation.
This is not to say, of course, that the president should contact an individual at the working level every time he or she needs information. But it does suggest clarity of communication is extremely important for managers, and implies that the signal strength of communication weakens as organizations grow.
As an example of signal strength in business, I recently saw an email that had been flowed down from an executive not too long ago. The email simply read “See attached and provide comment.” After five people passed it to others in the organization, it reached the person who was in a position to answer the question. She packaged up a reply with appropriate comments that indicated the attachment was a good reflection of the current project status.
An hour later, the email came back, this time a forwarded message that passed on the executive’s follow-on comment “Need a plan with dates.” In response, the employee again packaged up answers, with dates and action items. A few minutes later, a follow on message came back reading “What is the date for the next milestone?”
The dialog continued through a few more iterations, slowly converging on the piece of information the executive actually wanted. The exchange certainly frustrated everyone involved, and consumed more time than had the executive spent a few minutes spelling out the specific information he was looking for in the first place. In the end, the executive was likely displeased, while the young employee was left feeling inferior.
Miscommunication is a common problem in business. For many managers, the daylight hours are filled with constant interruption and activities. Given such dynamics, no one has time or patience to waste on repeated correspondence and unproductive time.
As a manager, it is important to think about your communication styles and techniques and assess your communication effectiveness. As your message goes through each layer of your business, the signal strength will weaken. Like in the children’s game of telephone, how often does your original message match the message received by the working level employees? Is your message received correctly? How long does it take, and how many people must get involved?
Organizational Change: 5 Things to Consider (blog post)
BLUFing Your Communication (blog post)
Managing Overseas Employees (blog post)
How are You Communicating With Your Customers? (blog post)