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Communication Works For Those Who Work At It

By Dr. Alan Zimmerman

Do you remember the movie "Cool Hand Luke?" And do you remember the one key sentence in that movie? People have been quoting it ever since. It was said by the prison guard. He said, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Well the same sentence could be applied to many organizations and teams. Almost everywhere I go to speak or consult, the employee surveys say the same thing. The employees say there is a "lack of communication."

Dennis Kinslow documented that in his book, The Practice of Empowerment. He asked 1000 participants in his coaching seminars this question: "If you knew that a supervisor in your organization was doing something that was hurting the performance of the organization, would you confront that person about what he or she was doing?" Less than 50% said they would confront their bosses.

He then asked 6000 participants in his seminars two additional questions. He asked, "Do you know of some way that your organization could make a substantial gain in cutting costs or improving the quality of its goods and services?" And, "Will you do anything about it?" About 100% of the participants answered "yes" to the first question, but less than 10% said "yes" to the second question. There's obviously "a failure to communicate" in many teams and organizations.

Debra Boggan documented the same kind of experience in her book, Confessions of an Unmanager. She found that the supervisors were giving lip service to the new empowerment program at a Nortel plant, but they weren't really using it. When she asked them about their commitment to the program, they all said they were behind it 100%. When she asked them how honest they'd just been in answering her question, they all avoided the question. She concluded her team had a trust and communication problem.

So she asked her team members, "Do you trust everybody else in this room?" She asked them to anonymously write out their answers on a slip of paper. Everyone wrote, "No."

Debra was smart, and she was a risk taker. She knew her team couldn't make any progress as long as they had "a failure to communicate." So she offered to put herself on the chopping block. She said, "Let's start with me. Why don't you trust me?"

For the next couple of hours, her staff gave feedback. One said she wasn't a good listener, that she seemed so preoccupied with her own ideas that she shut out the ideas of others. Another one pointed out that when they were talking one to one, she would take phone calls or speed-read her mail. Still others said she gave mixed signals--that sometimes she wanted the team members to take initiative and other times she wanted to run everything.

As the session progressed, an important shift came when a supervisor said, "I give mixed signals too." Then others looked at how they could improve. Somehow or other, Debra knew that one of the traits of a good leader is the extent to which his or her team mates speak up, share their ideas, and question the leader's point of view. She had taken the first step in making sure that would happen. She was overcoming a "failure to communicate."

Of course, I find a lot of leaders who will say, "My people just don't speak up. I ask them for their input, but they don't say much at our meetings. So I suppose we're all pretty much in synch." Not necessarily. When team members fail to disagree with their leaders, more often than not, it's the result of poor leadership by dictatorial bosses. Do not mistake silence for agreement.

Good leaders know the value of team member input. Good leaders know they can't think of everything. And they know they are much more apt to find the right answer to a problem if they have several possible solutions in front of them.

President John F. Kennedy certainly knew that. One of his close advisers said Kennedy tried to "surround himself with people who raised questions... and was wary of those who adapted their opinions to what they thought the President wanted to hear."

There is tremendous value in team member input. If, for example, you have a penny and I have a penny and we exchange pennies, you still have one cent, and I have one cent. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange ideas, you now have two ideas and I have two ideas. So good leaders encourage communication and solicit ideas. In general, they do five things:

  1. They encourage team members and subordinates to speak up by indicating the importance of doing so.
  2. They ask for the opinions of others before they have totally formulated their own.
  3. They hear people out by giving their full and undivided attention.
  4. They refrain from arguing or taking offense at ideas different from their own.
  5. They show in their attitude and their actions that they value a person who speaks his or her mind.
But you may be interested in more specific communication. Great! Go back to Debra Boggan's experience. After she asked her team members why they didn't trust her, she asked them, "How can I be better at my job?" Her specific question started a process that continues to this day, a process she called "truth sessions." They work for her team, and they can work for yours.

For each truth session, focus on one person. Let everyone give feedback on how that person could do better. The focal person just listens, takes notes, and absorbs the feedback without trying to refute or rebut any of the comments.

As team members give feedback to one another, they focus on opportunities for improvement. They do more than give "constructive criticism," they give specific examples of behaviors they've seen. And they give suggestions on how improvements might be made.

After a bit of time the focal person reports on the suggestions he found most helpful. He commits himself to implementing some of the suggestions, and fellow team members are invited to hold him accountable. At future meetings or even informally in the cafeteria, the focal person is asked how the new suggested changes are coming along.

Of course, not all team input is valuable. Some ideas just aren't the best. That's not a problem. Good leaders grow ideas rather than cut them down. They think of ideas as raw material rather than finished products.

It's easy to criticize team-member ideas as shortsighted, impractical, or too expensive. Just remember it's easier to add practicality to a fresh but flawed idea than it is to add freshness to an old idea.

Good leaders are tough skinned. They don't easily take offense.

If you've given an idea a lot of thought, it's not easy to hear your team members pick it apart. It's not easy to admit you might be wrong. And it's not very comforting to realize you overlooked some other worthy alternatives.

Good leaders, however, recognize the danger of taking offense. They know they're going to be wrong once in a while. That's why they want to hear opposing viewpoints -- to cut down on mistakes before they're made or correct past errors as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, there will always be a few team members who will not disagree with the boss. They think the best way to get ahead is to automatically agree with the boss. But I like movie producer Darryl Zanuck's response to an overly submissive team member. Zanuck barked, "Don't say yes until I finish talking."

Do you want to improve your team's performance? Then I strongly suggest you start by improving your team's communication. At your next team meeting, ask each person to answer the following three questions - in writing, anonymously. First, are you being 100% open and honest in our meetings? If not, what's the number one thing that is stopping you? And what has to be done to create a team atmosphere of total openness and honesty?

That should give you plenty to talk about.

As a best-selling author and Hall of Fame professional speaker, Dr. Alan Zimmerman has taught more than one million people in 48 states and 22 countries how to keep a positive attitude on and off the job. In his book, "PIVOT: How One Turn In Attitude Can Lead To Success," Dr. Zimmerman outlines the exact steps you must take to get the results you want in any situation. Go to Alan's site for more information.

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