Your Signal Strength: Communication in Business

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How to Improve Communication in Your 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 from 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.”

According to an MRH Poll, 50% of people say that Communication Skills are the single most important aspect of being a good manager.

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 can often become misconstrued and unclear by the time it gets to the working level. Sometimes, the message received is completely changed from its initial intent.

How Well Do You Communicate In Your Business?

When it comes to running your business, consider how communication cascades through the layers of the organization. Usually, 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, and so on.  Eventually, it gets down to the working level where the information exists.  Once the information is obtained, it must flow back up to the top of the business, and will again be subject to misinterpretation.  The bigger the organization is, the bigger the problem gets.

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.

A Real Example of a Communication Breakdown

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.

RELATED: The Art of the Executive Summary

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 this particular business leader 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.

How to Improve Your Communication

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.  Here are 5 simple ways to improve dialog, and make communication more efficient:

Ways to Improve Communication:

  1. Be specific in what you are looking for: do you need a summary, the key points, or the full details?
  2. Offer an example or template if you have a vision in mind for the data you seek.
  3. Provide the context to why the information is needed to ensure the other person knows to provide the right information.
  4. Include any assumptions you want to be factored into the response.
  5. Choose a form of communication that is equivalent to the timeframe in which the information is needed (i.e. email for non-urgent situations, instant messenger for timely, phone call for urgent).

Your Take Away

As a manager, it is important to think about your communication styles and techniques and evaluate your communication effectiveness.  Bear in mind that as your message goes through each layer of your business, the signal strength weakens.  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?  Remember that clarity and precision in the request can improve results.


Looking for More on Communication?  You Might Like….

Organizational Change: 5 Things to Consider

BLUFing Your Communication

Managing Overseas Employees 

How are You Communicating With Your Customers?



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