58: Communication Chaos, Part 1


Does this look like the communication in your organization?
Does this look like the communication in your organization?

This is a continuation of my series on my book Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. In this chapter we are discussing the communication in our organizations, some best practices, and how it evolves over time.

Also, I am gearing up for a new podcast series on the 8 skills all leaders must have, and I wold like your help. I created a new page where you can suggest the one skill you think all leaders must have, and the first 20 people who either leave a comment there, or send me a voice mail will get a coupon code for my new audio book The Power of Passion in Leadership.

In this episode I cover:

  • Never assume that anyone knows anything.
  • The bigger the group, the more attention must be given to communication.
  • When left in the dark, people tend to dream up wild rumors.
  • Communication must be the passionate obsession of effective leadership. 

I remember the summer that we introduced our children to Yellowstone National Park for the first time. I had not been there myself since I was a child and had forgotten how vast America’s most famous national park really is. Amid the beauty of Yellowstone was one sad blemish that shocked us: the many scars of forest fires that destroyed much of the park in 1989. And in those ashes was the story of a communication disaster that almost caused more damage than the fire itself.

It seems that the employees of the private company that runs the con- cessions in Yellowstone became worried for their lives during the height of the fires that threatened to ravage the entire park that summer. As the fires grew more and more dangerous, a rumor began to circulate that the executives of the concession company had a secret escape plan to get out of danger if the fires got too close. Information spread that the employees would have to fend for themselves, and it wasn’t long before the company had a near mutiny on its hands, since it was seen as taking care of itself first and employees second, if at all.

Lack of communication about evacuation plans coupled with the unfounded rumor destroyed confidence in the company’s goodwill. After learning of the problem, the company hired a forest service spokesman who brought daily updates on the status of the fire to all employees. Included in the communications was a detailed explanation of evacuation plans that all employees were a part of. The company had no executive escape plan, and the leadership had fully intended to make sure that every employee was safe amid the disaster. But that was not communicated, so the employees were left to speculate.

Rumor mills are part and parcel of every work group. Rumors often spread like a forest fire, and rarely, if ever, are they anywhere close to real- ity. Perhaps it was foolish for those Yellowstone concession employees to believe such a heartless rumor, but when things get bad and survival is involved, people can begin to create their own reality if the true reality is not communicated.

Never assume that anyone knows anything. This is a core leadership principle. We can never communicate enough in our organizations. Like the pulsing red cells rushing through our veins keeping our bodies alive, communication systems are the lifeblood of organizations. The folks at the furthest extremities desperately need to know what is going on in the minds of those at the leadership center, if they are to feel comfortable, safe, and knowledgeable about their work. In his excellent book, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Patrick Lencioni states that two of the four obsessions have to do with communication: organizational clarity and overcommunication of that clarity. Organizational clarity is “the basic definition of what the company does. As simple as this seems, it is com- mon to encounter employees in most companies who are not sure how to describe or define the organization’s basic mission” (159).

Though much of my job as a CEO is communicating our vision and selling our dream out among the public constituents, my insiders need to hear from me just as much, if not more. In fact, I expend as much energy on internal as on external communications. I never assume anymore that even my closest associates can read my mind—I’ve learned too much from watching false information spread.

HOW TO KNOW YOU HAVE A COMMUNICATION HANG-UP

A gentleman was walking down a residential street and noticed a man struggling with a washing machine at the doorway of his house. When he volunteered to help the homeowner was overjoyed, and the two men together began to work and struggle with the bulky appliance. After several minutes of fruitless effort, the two stopped and just looked at each other. They were on the verge of total exhaustion. Finally, when they caught their breath, the first man said to the homeowner, “We’ll never get this washing machine in there!” To which the homeowner replied, “In? I’m trying to move it out!”

Communication chaos begins when small groups start getting larger. As long as the organization is small, oral communication is sufficient and generally everyone knows everything. But as things grow larger, the need for more formal communication grows. You’ll recall the chart from chapter 4 on the life cycles of organizations. I have included it again here in a slightly different form. I have displayed the process from birth to maturity, without the decline toward death. As organizations grow from small entrepreneurships into professionally managed organizations, communication must be given more attention and must become more formal.

Early in my career, I had the exciting opportunity to be in on the ground floor of starting a new leadership training organization based in Vienna, Austria. We were a group of zealous entrepreneurs who were creating something out of nothing. Only five families were involved at the outset, and we started out in borrowed space in the basement of an office building. I remember vividly how we would make decisions in the hallways and communicate orally from one open office door to the other. In fact, we would all go jogging together in the Vienna woods and plan our strategy for the next six months. It was exciting, it was passionate, and it all happened so quickly! We never bothered writing down any of the great stuff we were cooking up, because we were all there. That approach worked great, and we were off and running. There was no question about which page of the hymnbook we were singing from.

But five years down the road, we had grown to a staff of more than sixty and had taken over the entire building. The organization had taken on a life of its own. The style of decision making that worked so easily at first now created chaos and frustration throughout the organization. “Hallway decision making” became the negative label for poor communication. That which had worked so well informally now had to be formalized. There was massive confusion everywhere about what we were trying to do, what our priorities were, and the details of operational strategy. Inspiration was replaced with uncertainly and misunderstanding— the fun was gone.

One reason the informal broke down was that newcomers to the group were left in the dark. Some of them hated jogging! The same small band kept making all the decisions orally, and no paper trail was left for others to trace.

The very passion that surrounds a young upstart can kill it in adolescence. As organizations grow, the original group of founders can become an inside elite. Since they were there from the beginning, they have the most information and power. Newcomers feel left out and in the dark. I recall one of the new employees in our group complaining about the lack of information in this vivid fashion: “I feel like I’m living on a mushroom farm—I’m left completely in the dark and fed manure from time to time.” That was a revealing statement of the kind of pain that can be caused by poor communication. Patrick Lencioni goes on to state in Four Obsessions,

Within companies that effectively overcommunicate, employees at all levels and in all departments understand what the organization is about and how they contribute to its success. They don’t spend time speculating on what executives are really thinking, and they don’t look for hidden messages among the information they receive. As a result, there is a strong sense of common purpose and direction, which supersedes any departmental or ideological allegiances they may have. (166)

EXACTLY WHERE ARE WE GOING?

Orchestra conductors have the unique ability to bring harmony out of chaos. For a decade, Donna and I had the joy of living in Vienna, one of the world’s greatest music capitals. What a privilege it was. One of the highlights of our social life was to go to the Philharmonic Hall and enjoy the beautiful Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Musicians consider the hall where the Philharmonic meets to be the most acoustically perfect music hall anywhere in the world. And I don’t know of a better symphony orchestra than the Vienna Philharmonic. However, when the orchestra first comes out and begins tuning, their sounds amaze you by their discord and chaos. How can this noise become beautiful music? The answer lies in the conductor. He walks out onto the stage, steps onto his platform, taps his music stand, and gives the artists the A note. All of his leadership is wrapped up in that A note, where harmony flows out of chaos. 

About five years into our project in Vienna, we were beginning to sense growing pains. We invited a management consultant to come in and spend a day with our top leadership. We sat in a circle around a large conference room table and began to talk about fundamentals of the organization.

The consultant asked us each to write down the core purpose of our organization. Then we went around the circle and read what we had written. Not two of us said the same thing, and some were far afield from the others! No wonder there was so much chaos among us! Like the strings of a guitar that lose their tuning, we had lost our harmony as a leadership group. You know you’re in trouble when your top leadership is confused about such fundamental issues as the core purpose for the group’s existence!

Our underlying problem was the failure to make the shift from an oral planning mode to a more formal written one. It was time we sharpened our strategic plan in writing, so we could all sign off on it and could then use that body of knowledge to orient each new member of the group. When the group is small, everyone knows the score, because everyone has time to touch base with each other almost daily. But if your group grows, you as the leader cross a threshold where you can no longer physically stay in touch through informal means. In our case, we began to have people in other cities and countries as parts of our organization. There was no way that the oral tradition could continue to drive the operation. It wasn’t much fun, but we had to get the organization on paper if we were going to thrive in the long run.

Sooner or later you must put your plans down in writing and spell out your direction clearly. That doesn’t mean that the plans won’t change, but it does mean that everyone knows the rules of the game. It means that you’re all trying to conquer the same mountain.

COMMUNICATION: A SERIES OF LINKAGES

The higher you go in leadership, the more sensitive you have to be about everything you communicate. I call this becoming aware of “communication linkages.” Every time I make a phone call or write a letter or make a decision, I have to ask, “What people are affected by this decision/letter/memo/directive? What are the linkages?” It can drive me crazy to think of all the people who need to be informed when a decision is made. Sometimes I feel like a fly caught in a spider web, tangled and stuck because of all the sticky communication lines attached to me! But I know that the consequences of not informing everyone are communication chaos and damaged relationships. Invariably, I send copies of memos or letters to various other people to make sure they are aware of my decisions and actions.

When meetings are over, the hard work of communication begins. It’s called “cascading communication,” the flow of information that has to occur as soon after leaders make decisions as possible. Picture it like ripples in a pond after you cast in a stone. The stone is the decision; the ripples are the cascades of information that move out quickly. In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni challenges leaders to make sure that within twenty-four hours of a meeting every person affected by the outcome be informed.

Not only must you communicate clearly the decision you make, quite often you must clear those decisions with a number of colleagues before finalizing them. Even though I have authority to make decisions in my organization, I would damage the entire system by unilaterally doing so without conferring with the key individuals involved.

Let me give a case in point. We have a gentleman who has been working for us for more than thirty-five years in Manila. Just five years short of retirement, he is looking for a new challenge. I am very interested in deploying him to Moscow to help us develop our work in that part of the world, which is booming with new opportunities. This is what I call internal recruitment, where an insider is recruited from one part of the organization to work in another.

He went to Moscow this past summer, to test the waters, and explore possibilities. He came back exuberant and excited. However, I cannot unilaterally redeploy him without taking into account his previous supervisor who oversaw his work in the Philippines, and his potential new supervisor who oversees our work in Europe. The entire process must be coordinated with all of the principal parties involved. And that is the hard work of effective communication.

WHEN NEW LEADERS CHANGE THE RULES

There is never a time when more in-house communication is needed than when a new leader arrives on the scene. People need to know what to expect of their new leader. If you are that person, make sure you over-communicate as an obsession. If you are living under new leadership, demand to hear from the leader as much as possible about their dreams and visions for the group. When I became CEO of WorldVenture fifteen years ago, it meant taking over an organization that had been run with a dramatically different leadership style for twenty-two years. I was as different from my predecessor as a carrot is from a pickle. Not only were our styles dramatically different, but I was also from a younger generation. A boomer taking over from a builder. How did that play with our staff? It made them very uneasy and nervous, because they didn’t know what to expect. For the first couple of years, the jury was out on whether I would survive, and the number-one question everyone wanted to know was, “Who is this new kid on the block?” I survived and thrived by a pas- sionate commitment to face time and open communication. Communication became a supremely important part of my new job, just like when a new coach takes over. The team has the right to know how they’re going to play ball.

EFFECTIVE LEADERS ARE AVID LISTENERS

Leaders often love to talk. They enjoy listening to their own great pearls of wisdom and insight. Sometimes they even begin to believe their own press reports. And as they gain more authority, they have less reason to listen to subordinates. Have you ever noticed that there is much more horizontal communication in an organization than vertical? Coworkers are always talking about everything, but the communication between those coworkers and their superiors is much less frequent and much more formal. Leaders must figure out ways to tap into that underground flow of infor- mation. They must keep current on the undercurrents.

The more people you lead, the more you must listen. Effective leadership has more to do with listening than with talking. Leaders, by their very nature, tend to be removed from the front lines of battle in the organization. Therefore, they must listen to those who are in the trenches and rely on that information to make wise decisions. Yet the pressures of leadership work against that process at every turn.

Here are some of the reasons why it is hard for leaders to listen to everyone in the organization:

Too little time. The more people you lead, the less time you have for each person. (And, of course, the more tasks each of them expects you to accomplish!)

Too many people. There are literally dozens of leaders in our organization with whom I should have an intimate relationship, including the top lead- ers in the home office, the leaders of our field offices in North America, our international directors, and the sixty-plus leaders of our projects around the world. There are just too many of them, but they can each get individually frustrated with me if I don’t take the time or build the systems whereby they can communicate with me.

Pressure. Leaders usually find themselves under a constant sense of pressure from more deadlines and responsibilities than they can handle well. The image of a soldier in battle comes to mind: Here I stand in the trenches, with bullets flying, planes buzzing overhead, and tanks rolling in our direction. My radio is crackling with news from many fronts. Then along comes one of my people who wants a quiet, long talk about his or her concerns. The intense pressures of leadership sometimes make it very difficult to listen attentively, which brings us back to chapter 2 and making time for people.

Distance. In some cases the sheer problem of physical distance between the leader and his or her followers makes it tough to stay in close contact. I have the challenge of many of our top leaders living five thou- sand miles away from me.

Too much knowledge. Leaders sometimes know so much that they find it hard to listen to someone rehearsing stories, facts, or anecdotes that the leader has already heard dozens of times.

Pride. This comes on the heels of the knowledge problem. Sometimes we simply think we know too much. We get to the place where we don’t think we can learn from others. The admonition of Scripture should be clear enough: “Be quick to listen [but] slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Communication overload. This problem was addressed in the paperwork versus peoplework discussion in chapter 2. The telecommunications revolution is tightening the information noose around the neck of the average leader. Leaders can become so saturated with communication that they find their system shutting down from overload. With cell phones, notebook computers, faxes, e-mail, and BlackBerrys, you can run but you can’t hide from communication overload.

Nothing stops the progress of an organization more quickly than leaders failing to listen. Like hardening of the arteries, restricted communication will destroy a leader’s credibility. Followers want to communicate to their leaders. If you fail to listen to them, their very effectiveness and job satisfaction will be in jeopardy. At the end of this chapter, I will give tips on how I have overcome these obstacles in my leadership.

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2 Responses

  1. This is great, Hans. I have watched your career since you were at Conservative Baptist Conference and I worked at World Relief. You hit all the right points of communication and leadership and the need for listening. I always walk away from your writing/podcasts nodding my head in the affirmative!

    1. Hi Marlene. Great to hear from you. Thanks so very much for your affirmation! Great to reconnect after a lot of years!

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