cartoon on communication

  • Communication as a symptom not a cause of problems

I was working with the client last week which was focusing very strongly on improving communication. They had received climate survey feedback that people were dissatisfied with communication and wanted to improve.

This is a very common request that we get from clients. It seems as though every meeting, every training session and every client survey ends in a need for “more communication.”

But at the same time, we know that managers and professional people spend up to 85% of their time communicating already. Participants on our virtual teams survey tell us they spend two days a week in meetings and calls alone  – and all of us are plagued by endless e-mails.

Yet the quality of this communication is generally poor, 50% of the content of meetings and calls is irrelevant and other 75% of e-mails are unnecessary. We wouldn’t accept this poor standard of quality in any other area of business endeavor.

So what is going on? People receive a lot of communication and are generally unhappy with the quality of it – so can the answer be a need to provide more?

In our work, we’ve discovered that dissatisfaction with communication is often a symptom of some underlying problems. If we don’t solve these underlying problems and just focus on improving the amount of communication other communication skills of the individuals then we’ll just get slightly more efficient at doing the wrong thing.

Here are just three examples of the underlying problems that often result in communication dissatisfaction:

  1. The wrong form of cooperation – In our obsession with teamwork and involvement, we try to connect everyone to every issue. By clarifying whether we are really a team, or whether simpler group, community or network forms of cooperation are more effective. We can increase the relevance of communication and cut out a lot of unnecessary communication “noise”.
  2. Too much control – If a lot of communication is factored around control such as reporting, status meetings and cumbersome decision-making, people tend to be very dissatisfied. If those in authority delegate and people are empowered, we need much less of this form of unpopular communication.
  3. Badly implemented communication technology – We have many tools available to support communication, but they are overwhelmingly been used to “push” information at people with relatively low relevance. People are rarely trained in the use of tools like e-mail, webinar or conference calls and as a result the execution of these tools is generally poor.

Often, companies faced by this dissatisfaction with communication respond by increasing the volume of messages – more e-mails, websites and newsletters when people are already deluged with this kind of information!

When we (at Global Integration) talk to people about what they really want from communication, it’s clear what they want is conversations, in particular one-to-one time with the boss. We never met anyone who said they wanted more meetings, conference calls or e-mails!

So our tip on improving communication will first be to solve the underlying dynamics that are causing too much poor quality communication. If we cut out unnecessary and irrelevant communication, we can improve satisfaction with what remains.

We can use the time we save to invest in real conversations and two-way communication rather than pushing information at a weary workforce.

We can also move to more “pull” forms of communication –  making things like corporate reporting, status updates, etc..  accessible for people when they need them, rather than interrupting them in their work with information they may not need at that time.

If we simply respond to our client’s survey feedback by adding more poor quality and irrelevant, communication, rather than dealing with the underlying problems, we will only make the situation  worse.

Once we have solved the structural problems – and only then – we can go on and work on our communication skills.

Why not…?



About the author:

Kevan Hall Kevan Hall is a CEO, author, speaker and trainer in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is the author of "Speed Lead - faster, simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, "Making the Matrix work - how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity", and the "Life in a Matrix" podcasts, videos, cartoons and blog. He is CEO and founder of Global Integration. Company profile: .

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