Keep on Communicating

Ranging from the electro-chemical signals your brain sends your autonomic nervous system all the way out to the deep space probes of astrophysics, communication is the most pervasive human activity. Literally, communication is life. Nothing happens until someone or something communicates a need or desire. Then communications either question, inform, inspire, control, motivate or paralyze. Great communicators from Abraham Lincoln through Martin Luther King Jr. have moved masses of people with their speeches.

In both Lincoln and King’s cases our nation was at a crossroads. In November 1863 the U.S. was divided by a massive civil war. In August 1963, America was still divided by racial bias. Lincoln spoke at the new Gettysburg National Cemetery. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A century apart they delivered their messages with an eloquence seldom heard, but with the same content: equity, justice and brotherhood. And people responded. In 1865, the Union won the war; in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed.

We are inundated with abominable communications at many levels. We are buried in political claptrap from both sides. Fear, misstatement, innuendo and lies take the place of sound rhetoric. In business, advertising is replete with misdirection and exaggeration. Inside companies, messages to employees often express management’s views, disregarding employees’ interests and needs. My experience with corporate communications departments is similar. Their concerns are often more about the form and timing of outgoing messages rather than the interests and needs of the employee audience. How does that affect talent management?

Not long ago I carried out a research program designed to uncover how employees felt about their corporate communications. I tapped into 4,000 employees asking them about nine topics that formed ongoing downward communications from their employer. I asked which topics were of highest interest to them. The answers were consistent. Job performance, career opportunities and pay and benefits were the top three.

Secondly, I asked who they wanted to deliver the information. Their immediate supervisor was by far the preferred transmitter for almost every topic. Last, I asked what medium they preferred. The more important the message, the more they wanted to hear it face to face.

If you as a talent manager want your colleagues and the people in your unit to accept your ideas and follow your lead, your best chance of success is to express your idea in relation to their needs, rather than your own. In short, you need to know your audience’s concerns.

Communication is about more than words. It is the messages you send through your attitude, expressions, posture and dress. Much of it is unconscious, yet quite important. You know if your boss has a sour demeanor you are not always likely to give your best effort.

This takes us to engagement, which is linked tightly to leadership. Poor leaders seldom have engaged employees. People not only listen to what their leaders say, they watch what their leaders do.

This communication depends on preparation. The more important your message, the more you have to consider how to deliver it, when and where that will take place and what media you will use to reinforce your points. A message on paper is received differently than one on a telephone, in PowerPoint slides or in person. Media inherently convey overtones. Send your mother a handwritten letter, call her on the phone or send an email. You know her feelings are going to be different.

One of my great concerns is the declining ability to communicate effectively. A major responsibility of all managers is to develop the people around them. So, I charge you to teach others that simple contact does not correlate with effective communication. Among friends, slang and shortcuts are acceptable. But in a competitive business world this places a leader behind those who are more eloquent. It ensures confusion in operations, frustration in performance, lost opportunities and promotes psychological dropouts.

Can you truly believe “Four score and seven years ago” or “I have a dream” would have inspired us if they had been tapped out in acronyms on a smartphone?