Communication or Confusion

February 5, 2010

Whilst preparing my March column for PM Network (available 1st March), I was considering the difficulties caused by language in the process of communication. Albert Einstein summarized the problem nicely: ‘The major problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.’

Communication, is a two way process to build a common understanding. But the process of communication is not helped by words. There are words spelt the same with totally different meanings:

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

And words that are spelt differently but sound the same:

  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

These are just a few examples, the meaning of some words also changes by national, regional and industry usage as well as the migration of slang into acceptable usage. The example I used in my column is Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. What’s really interesting though is most people with a reasonable command of English within the context of the whole sentence would have little difficulty in distinguishing between:

– present = the current time

– present = bestow or give

– present = gift.

Then bring in punctuation to change the meaning of words:

  • Eats shoots and leaves.
  • Eats, shoots and leaves.

The Australian version of the ‘eats shoots and leaves’ joke is:

A wombat walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires it into the ceiling.

‘Why?’ asks the confused waiter, as the wombat makes towards the exit.

The wombat produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. ‘I’m a wombat’, he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

‘Wombat: Mid sized Australian marsupial. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

(The Australian version of this joke is actually eats roots and leaves – wombats live in burrows – but I won’t go there).

In face to face conversations, recognising misunderstandings that can lead to a breakdown in communication is fairly easy; up to 90% of the communication is through body language and vocal tones. Even with telephone calls, the tone of voice tells you a lot about the other person feelings. Traditional writing with proper sentence construction and punctuation falls a long way short of verbal communication but is also a well understood structure for conveying information, if not understanding.

However, the arrival of emails, SMS and twitter has transformed the communication landscape. In a virtual team probably more than 90% of the communication is based on the words in emails and texts. These communication media do not follow the traditional rules.

People in a well established group operating virtually may be able develop language protocols that provide effective communication but to outsiders this ‘new language’ can be almost impenetrable. Cn u undRst& dis? (translated at Lingo2word  =  can you understand this?). Throw in some good old industry jargon and from the perspective of the old rules, it’s surprising any one actually communicates. But they do, or at least appear to!

One study has suggested good virtual teams outperform good co-located teams but poorly functioning virtual teams are far worse than poorly function co-located teams. I need to follow up on this but my first impressions are the breakdown in communication implied in the study has far more impact in the virtual arena.

In this new age of interconnectiveness the rules of effective communication are different and rapidly evolving and the degree of acceptance of these ‘new rules’ is likely to be in part age based. Most people in their 50s and 60s really need to see someone they are dealing with at least once or twice to build rapport and open effective communications; whereas younger people seem totally comfortable building rapport by email and text.

Another aspect is the global nature of ‘web2’. Old communication protocols varied from society to society based on each society’s concepts of formality, social structure and power. Outsiders who needed to communicate effectively in a different culture learned the appropriate cultural norms. How relevant these traditional forms are to people under 30 who can communicate with anyone, anywhere using SMS and email, not to mention the social networking sites such as twitter has not been determined. More things to look at…..

What does this mean for a manager developing a communication plan today? The short answer is I don’t know. Effective communication is still critically important in most aspects of business but I would suggest relying on any set of protocols that worked in the past without a careful assessment of their current effectiveness is likely to be counterproductive.

Some of these questions will be addressed in my new book, Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders (publication 2011), many of the others are starting to be worked into our communication workshops but there’s a long way to go both academically and practically to really come to grips with the new communication landscape.

More later.

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Managing Older Stakeholders

January 17, 2010

One of the impacts of the global financial crises has been for many people to defer their plans for retirement. From a physiological perspective this is quite achievable, people currently approaching their 60s were born after World War 2; their parents were children during the great depression of the 1930s and then went through the depravations of the war years. From a physical health perspective today’s 60 year olds are probably similar to their parents in their 50s. If this hypothesis holds true, the end of a baby boomer’s effective working life should be nearer to 75 than 65.

Diversity has long been recognised as contributing value to teams. Including older workers in a team contributes to diversity. Older workers have a lifetime of accumulated experience and provided they remain adaptable and ‘current’ can offer any project team a range of valuable capabilities ranging from wisdom and maturity through to teaching and mentoring.

There are interesting challenges though; the older person has to remain flexible and adaptive. The only best answer was not found 20 years ago and the tendency to become ‘set in ones ways’ is the biggest threat to the effectiveness of the older team member. Experience and lessons learned on past projects are valuable but need to be introduced to the team in subtle and sensitive ways.

Managing older workers also needs to take into account some of the immutable effects of ageing. Stamina and endurance levels reduce as people get older, the skeletal frame becomes more brittle and injuries take longer to heal. The solution is flexible working and if physical work is involved more careful job design. Whilst many older people find a ‘granny nap’ in the early afternoon helpful, after the nap they can keep on working until late at night (another effect of ageing is a reduced need for sleep). Similarly, many older people have learned disciplined work habits and will remain focused on a critical but uninteresting job far longer than youngsters, making fewer mistakes.

The biggest challenge is for young project managers faced with the prospect of managing someone nearly as old their parents. The young leader has to avoid becoming defensive and develop a productive working relationship using techniques similar to those used to ‘advise upwards’; assisted by the structural authority the project manager has over team members. Both sides of the relationship have to adapt but the advantages of applying good stakeholder management skills to make the relationship effective can have major benefits for the project, the project manager and the older worker.

Many skills are going to be in short supply as the recovery cuts in around the world and older workers represent a valuable pool of knowledge and talent. The demographic changes in most western societies are immutable; add in the effect of the GFC and those organisations and managers who learn to make effective use of the resource pool created by older workers wanting to stay in the workforce will have a significant advantage over those organisations that focus exclusively on competing for the diminishing pool of young workers.

What are your experiences in this area?