Sometimes what you think you said is not what is heard. The audience’s expectations and perspective, plus their past experiences, shapes what they hear. Perhaps more accurately, these things shape the message that they actually receive.
November 2011 found us conducting a battalion operation against the Taliban in the Now Zad district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In that time and place, northwestern Now Zad was the dividing line between the territory held by the Afghan government (supported by the Marines), and the territory held by the Taliban. The operation was a sure tactical success and the Marines established a new patrol base far into northwestern Now Zad. The platoon commander who led its establishment had an eye for history and he had explained the story of Hadrian’s Wall to his Marines before the operation. When his platoon established the patrol base they intended to call it PB Hadrian.
This was a remote outpost and the only form of communication they had with the outside world was radio. When the platoon concluded their part of the operation, they called in a report on the establishment of their patrol base with all the many required details. The Marine on the receiving end of the conversation (he was at the company’s operating base) was not familiar with the story about Hadrian’s Wall and had not heard the platoon commander’s explanation about it. So, he recorded the name of the patrol base as “PB Adrian” and that became its official name. (I’ve often wondered if the Marine on the receiving end was a fan of the movie Rocky?)
I had a good chuckle when I unraveled this story in the following weeks, but then it got me to thinking. Although this an extreme illustration it highlights a critical point – how often in our work does the message we intend to convey get received differently by our audience?
I’ve read dozens of studies over the years about communication in the workplace and the consensus is clear, poor communication hurts the bottom line. I recently reviewed a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit and they identify the top three impacts of bad communication as added stress, delayed projects, and low morale. This correlates with one notable symptom I’ve often observed, employee disengagement, which happens when people feel like leadership isn’t listening to their concerns and when the employees don’t clearly understand what is expected of them.
From a number of studies, here are the top recommendations for bringing improved communication to your organization:
1. Have a clear communication goal and ask for feedback so that you know it was received correctly. A good example here is an agenda for a meeting. Publish it ahead of time, stick to it, and make sure all questions about it are answered before adjourning.
2. Use multiple paths to transmit the message. In today’s workplace we can send messages using video chat, text chat, email, phone, etc. We should recognize that the individuals in our audience each learn best according to his or her own style. Using multiple media increases the chances your message is received as intended.
3. Get feedback. Leaders should always, always, actively seek feedback from as many channels as possible, especially if you want to determine if your message was properly received throughout the depth of your organization. The bottom line for leaders is that if your people don’t understand your message, then you need to keep transmitting it in every way possible until you’re sure it’s understood.