The High Cost of Poor Communication

A friend was recently sharing her frustration with me over a situation at work. She was grumbling about getting a negative response from senior management on a proposal she had initiated. As I helped her tease apart the various aspects of the process she went through, it became apparent that her frustration stemmed not from the message itself, but from the delivery of the message.

Far too many leaders underestimate the value of “leading” over “managing” and this discrepancy can be responsible for driving high performers out the door and on to different organizations. When enough high performers are gone, the company is left with a large group of middle performers and a “larger than average” group of low performers. Management may convince themselves that the organization is packed with bright, talented high performers, and without contrast, it’s easy to assume that your top performers are, in fact, high performers.

Back to my friend. She had submitted a proposal to initiate a cost savings effort to benefit the organization. It would have required a time investment on her part and some resources from the organization but she was willing to spend extra time and to demonstrate ROI. Senior management had agreed to meet and discuss her proposal. Following the manager’s meeting Sarah had to track down one of the management team to inquire if her proposal had been approved, or was at least open for further discussion. She received an email saying her proposal just couldn’t be justified and someone else would follow up with her. That ‘someone else’ she also had to track down. The message was delivered curtly and directly, leaving her feel deflated and demoralized. How likely is Sarah to take initiative again in the future with this organization?

In The High Cost of Poor Communication Chip Wilson provides a great overview of the issues surrounding poor communication and the need for formal communication training for leaders in organizations.

Formal communication training is often overlooked when training new managers.  Seventy-one percent of employees feel that their managers do not spend enough time explaining goals and plans.  On the other hand, many leaders avoid necessary communication because they fear negative results.  For example, it was recently discovered that 38% of performance feedback actually hinders employee performance.  This statistic could easily change if companies would invest in basic communication skills training for their managers.  Understanding and removing communication barriers is vital for managerial success.

With this in mind, I think we can effectively remove the “message” from the heart of my friend’s problem. Approached differently, let’s imagine how the same message could have yielded much better results. Let’s assume first that initiative was taken by a manager to reach out to her once a decision was made, in order to provide Sarah with the results:

Sarah, first I want to say that we all have great respect for your willingness to take initiative and create a proposal to help our organization improve. ACME places high value on taking ownership and responsibility, and the entire management team was impressed with your proposal. It is this kind of proactive approach to your work that shows you are not only a high performer but also will do well here at ACME, and we hope that you will be happy with us for many years. Unfortunately, we were not able to approve the resources needed to move your project forward at this time, though we do think the idea has merit and we’d like to put it on the list of projects up for approval in our next budget year. When we are able to get this approved we would like for you to help us spearhead the effort, of course. Thank you again for your great work here at ACME. We welcome all of your ideas. This is what helps us improve our organization – employees like you!

When I pitched a response like this to Sarah I could see her immediately relax and her entire body language change. She admitted it was true – in fact a “no” would have been perfectly acceptable, had she simply been communicated with clearly and directly, and made to feel like a valued, respected member of the team.

Changing the approach with Sarah would have cost her employer NOTHING extra, and would have shifted Sarah’s feelings about her company from those of hurt to those of great trust and respect, even though the message was the same. As Chip Wilson states:

Feedback connects people and their behavior to the world around them.  It gives everyone the chance to realize how their behavior influences the success of their organization.  Effective feedback will reinforce positive behavior and correct negative behavior.  The ability to give and receive feedback is a must for leaders who wish to have honest and direct relationships with employees.