by Doug Sundheim
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” —George Bernard Shaw
When it comes to pursuing new ideas, entering new markets, or trying to make any big changes that involve other people, I always tell clients to start with the assumption that their communication is going to break down. This advice isn’t based on my observations of them, their specific organization, or the specific situation they’re facing. Rather, it’s based on my observations of hundreds of leaders just like them, all their organizations, and all the situations they’ve faced. Whenever two or more people are involved in anything, there’s a good chance that communication will break down at some point.
I see it in my own life and business. While it’s my job to help leaders and teams get better at communicating — and I’m hyper aware of pitfalls that can lead to poor communication — I still have communication breakdowns. I might get busy and not let other team members know what I’m doing. Or I might spend so much time thinking about a topic that I forget that others aren’t on the same page as I am. Or I might not share a piece of information because it doesn’t occur to me that it would be helpful for others to know it. Given the pace of business today, it’s easy for these things to happen, even when I know better.
Recognizing how easily breakdowns can occur, I have weekly check-in meetings with my team on key projects. When an issue rears its head, we’ll discuss why it happened, how to address it, and how to avoid it in the future. However, although we get better, we never completely eliminate communication breakdowns. Invariably, a different issue under different circumstances arises several months later, and we’ll go through the process again.
I’ve come to see communication breakdowns as a simple fact of human interaction and organizational life, especially when you’re up to something big. There are always a lot of moving parts to manage. If you expect breakdowns, catch them, and address them, you can lessen their frequency, intensity, and negative impact. Also, if you deepen your appreciation for why they happen, you can get better at predicting them in advance.
The Communication Blind Spot
Communication within organizations breaks down for many complex reasons, ranging from power dynamics to low levels of trust to hidden agendas. However, in my experience, the most common reason communication breaks down is much simpler than these. It happens because people fail to realize that they have information that should be communicated in a more focused, thoughtful, and frequent way.
I call this the communication blind spot. It frequently unfolds something like this. People get together, talk about something over a number of months, and come to a set of decisions. Then they share their decisions with a few people in the organization in an ad hoc fashion. They might even send a document around outlining the decision. Three months later, because they’ve been talking about the issue so much and they remember sending a document around, they’re under the illusion that everyone understands and appreciates the decision the same way that they do. They’re blinded to the fact that others, who weren’t in the original planning meetings and have never been focused on the ideas that the planners discussed, don’t have nearly the same appreciation for those ideas. Then one of the original planners brings up the idea in a meeting, assuming that everyone is on the same page as he is. Unfortunately, 75 percent of the room has no idea what he’s talking about. The person bringing it up can’t believe it. He was sure that the decision and rationale were shared very clearly with the organization months ago. But he was wrong.
The communication blind spot happens because once something becomes really clear to us, we have a tendency to think that it’s clear to everyone else, too. As a result, we don’t feel that the topic needs a lot of detailed communication. That’s when problems begin. People have different understandings of the issue. They draw different conclusions, and they begin operating from different sets of assumptions.
Here are a few practical suggestions for avoiding the communication blind spot:
- Always start from the assumption that your communication is terrible. It may be an overstatement, but it will serve you well by putting you in a productive mindset.
- Capture key discussions and decisions in brief “recap” emails and circulate to relevant parties. Make them short. I recommend 3 parts to each topic discussed: Key discussion points, decisions made, and next steps. That way, in 3 months, when no one has any recollection of the meeting, you can remember, where, when, and why a decision was made. And you can use these notes to keep a group focused and hold them accountable.
- Check in with people regularly. Ask for feedback on “in flight” projects or programs. If you get a blank stare you’ll realize the message didn’t get through. Go back to the drawing board and re-communicate. Repeat often.