“Zoo worker in gorilla suit shot with tranquiliser dart during ‘escape drill’ because no-one told the vet it wasn’t real”
This recent headline from one of the trashloids tells of an incident in a zoo in Tenerife where an employee was shot with a tranquiliser dart. The employee, dressed in a gorilla suit, was taking part in a drill to ensure that adequate plans were in place should a gorilla escape for real. Astonishingly, nobody had informed the vet and in the confusion he shot the man. Joking aside, the victim is apparently in a bad way as a result so let’s wish him well.
(Update: it has since emerged that the story might not be all it seemed but it makes for a good intro regardless of its veracity)
In all walks of life, communication is important and breakdowns in communication can literally (or should that be possibly) be a pain in the rear end. And in different ways, communication failures at work can cause suffering, albeit usually non-physical. While clearly there are many dimensions of organisational communication to consider, the focus here will be on two specific elements:
- Back to basics on communication
- Styles of communication
Before addressing these two areas, however, it’s important to highlight again a broader issue about human interactions and particularly how some people seek to project themselves when they communicate in groups. Interesting research related to this issue, which I have referred to before, was conducted by Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff from the University of California, Berkeley,(1) which offers some valuable insights into how some people think and behave when interacting in groups.
Using two simulated work-related experiments, and controlling for variables such as the influence of gender that might have influenced the results (they only constituted all male or all female teams), Anderson and Kilduff showed that in group situations the more dominant individuals consistently exerted higher levels of influence over the remaining participants. (No surprises here.). In the first exercise, 68 graduate students were divided into four-person teams and given a fictitious task to complete in a defined time period. After the teams performed their work, the members of each group rated one another on both their level of influence on the group and, more importantly, their level of competence. The work sessions were videotaped, and a group of independent observers performed the same evaluations, as did Anderson and Kilduff.
Following the first exercise, all three sets of judges came to the same conclusion: that those who spoke more frequently and offered more suggestions were subsequently perceived as being the most competent. (Again, nothing too surprising there perhaps.) What was most revealing in the study was that the dominant characters continued to rate highest amongst their team mates and the independent observers even when the suggestions they made were no better – and sometimes were far worse – than others.
In a second study, conducted with a new team of volunteers but following the same team format as previously, the exercise was based on the ability to solve maths problems; the idea being that some degree of competence would be required in maths to enable participants to speak up, and as such it was assumed this would influence who became the dominant players within the groups. Yet again, the researchers found that those who spoke up most frequently were subsequently described by their peers as leaders and were considered to be the maths experts in the groups. But, the researchers proved that, in fact, these dominant individuals were neither the smartest nor the ones who offered the most correct answers – what they did do was offer the most answers.
In a nutshell, this study highlighted that the more dominant an individual appears to be (and that doesn’t have to be in an aggressive manner either), the more likely their peers are to assign attributes of leadership and competence to them. A lot of people in my experience, including managers, work from similar beliefs about dominance; they know that if they project themselves as the strongest or brightest person around then few will challenge them. And they partially do this by hogging the limelight in group communication scenarios where they seek to dominate interactions. It is worth reflecting upon whether this is something you do personally, or allow others to do to you.
1. Back to basics
Effective managers are always great communicators. And they see the value in having regular and structured communication with their people, individually and collectively. That said, they are less hung up about the quantity of communication than its quality because they know that the more meetings employees have to attend, or the more time they spend in meetings, the more pressured they are likely to feel. Double those feelings if those meetings are badly run and unproductive. As a result, top managers make sure that what they do in terms of communication – across a variety of channels – is not only structured and ongoing, but productive too.
Effective communication is a challenge at the best of times but the workplace, with its multitude of distractions, pressures and personalities raises the hurdles exponentially. Add to this mix the one or two individuals who choose not to listen, or intentionally misinterpret (and then misrepresent) what you say, and the difficulties faced when seeking to communicate well at work are many and varied. Still, the best managers take many of those challenges in their stride because they intuitively understand that when it comes to communication, how they say things is just as important as what it is they have to say in terms of making an impact. They know too that when they communicate with others, be that one or many, the messages flying back and forth have two important elements – content and context. They understand that content relates to the words they choose, while context – the emotional part – is about how those words are transmitted and relates to tone and body language.
Any number of problems can arise in relation to content, from using inappropriate language for the audience in question to overuse of meaningless jargon like all that ‘going forward’ and ‘leveraging’ gibberish. Recently, I was at a meeting discussing a potential problem when one of those sitting around the table suddenly chimed in that “we need to get air cover on this one” and the rest nodded in agreement, as if we were all sitting in a bunker in Afghanistan. I mean, spare me. Plain English, please. What is also worth highlighting on the content issue is how it takes some people so long to actually get the words out, or where others have a tendency to use 20 words when five would suffice, that type of thing. My point? It’s important to be clear, concise and get to the point in a timely fashion.
Context includes your tone and body language (discussed below) and, as is widely known, all the research shows that this far outweighs the actual spoken word in terms of impact. Tone is often misused in communication situations, from those who don’t speak loud enough to others who mistake shouting for power of argument. Raised tone can, of course, be appropriate on occasion to emphasise annoyance, or even just to get a word in when others believe in talking over you, but as a rule shouting detracts from your message, as people wonder why you are being so ‘emotional’ and in doing so likely miss the gist of what you have to say. Shouting also gives the impression that you lack self-control so for a variety of reasons, even when you are justifiably annoyed, a firm tone works best. Of course, the level of your voice is just one tonal issue, there are plenty more concerns, such as pace, pitch and pronunciation as well as being too curt or even too formal/informal depending upon the circumstances.
That said, it is important to bring passion to the points you make – appropriate to the circumstances, naturally. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about overdoing the emotion, but it’s important to show real passion in your tone of voice in a way that is relevant to the topic and the audience. Put a bit of feeling into it.
With regard to body language, there are a multitude of potential sins. When transmitting messages your body language should always reinforce what you are saying, not detract from it; and especially in situations where you feel somewhat nervous or intimidated, you need to work to get things right.
All of us should constantly work on our ability to communicate, but we don’t always give these basics the attention they deserve. This is partially down to the fact that communicating is seen as a natural activity, something that we learned to do when we were young and now that we’ve ‘mastered’ it, there’s not much more to be done other than a bit of tweaking here and there. Unfortunately, what we don’t always realise, or admit, is that as well as the good things we have learned, we have also developed bad communication habits along the way, about which we may not even be aware. Others are, however. And if you watch managers in action who are poor at getting their message across, it’s usually fairly basic stuff that they are getting wrong. So, in conclusion here, you should never stop focusing on the nuts and bolts of how you communicate so that you are constantly developing and improving in this vital area.
2. Styles of communication
As a manager, you will naturally be communicating with people in a variety of ways on a multitude of subjects, hopefully using different styles that are appropriate to the matter or scenario at hand. While this style issue is again not something that you probably give a whole lot of thought to, it’s worth reflecting upon because how you use different styles of communication has a major impact on how effective you are as a communicator and as a manager. The diagram below shows the different styles that you can adopt to communicate with your team:
Generally, how you communicate can fluctuate from a Direct (Informing and Discussing) model to one where you seek to Engage (Influencing and Consulting) people in order to win them over to your ideas, and you can do so using one-way or two-way styles. These are all valid approaches and can be used as follows:
In terms of the Direct Model:
Informing At times being a manager means that you have to make decisions, or implement those taken by your superiors, which are not open to debate. In such circumstances you need to inform your people – and while you might let them blow off steam, or you will naturally explain the finer points of what’s planned – there is really no point in getting into a detailed discussion with them about the matter because they simply have to accept that the decision has been made. It’s out of their control. A team briefing is another good example of where you might apply this style – it’s largely one-way and you are informing them on work-related matters, or you might also use this style of communication when you need something to be done in a hurry.
Using the informing method is perfectly acceptable you are not being aggressive in how you apply it, and if you don’t think that informing equates to railroading, whereby you close down any discussion on the matter.
Discussing – If you only rely on the informing style all the time, which is essentially a one-way approach, then this becomes very limiting because your people need more input than that if you want them to fully engage. So, at times you need to adopt a ‘discussing’ style where people can explore issues in detail with you. You may not change, nor may you be in a position to change, decisions made, but you are at least prepared to discuss at length the views and concerns of employees about those decisions, and where possible tweak them in response. Again, this is a perfectly acceptable style in the right circumstances and meetings are a good example of where you would be deploying it.
In general, the Direct model of communication has its limitations in that, even where discussion is possible, by and large decisions have already been made and employees really don’t have all that much input into them. To counterbalance this, on other occasions, rather than impose ideas and decisions on your people, you need to shift to an Engage approach to how you communicate and within that you can again apply two styles:
Influencing – Influencing is a one-way style which involves convincing others that an idea or decision is the right way to go. With this style, you use persuasive arguments to win people over. A good example of where you might use this approach is in trying to convince people that a change you are proposing is for the best – it’s not a case that you are telling them this is how it will be, but rather the onus is on you to try to inspire and excite them about what you want to happen. This is such an important approach for today’s manager that it is dealt with in greater detail below.
Consulting - A consulting style of communication is where you fully engage with your people to discuss issues, explore options and collectively agree on the best way forward. Some managers are uncomfortable with this style of communication as they fear they might lose control in such circumstances, or that things might get out of hand in some way.
While the four styles of communication outlined above are clearly not complicated, applying them in practice can be far more challenging. Naturally, the Direct styles are easier on you in the sense that they allow you to retain high levels of control over the interactions. However, the reality of the modern workplace is that the influencing and consulting styles of communication are far more prevalent now than they were even a decade ago, and all managers need to be comfortable using them.
Particularly, you should focus on your ability to influence and persuade others because that’s the style you will likely need to use more frequently in future. Think of it this way. In general terms, as alluded to earlier, employees are less willing to accept being told what to do all the time and that’s now an established trend in the world of work. It’s not going away. More pressingly, you will require greater flexibility from your people in the months and years ahead, and will want them to go beyond the call of duty on occasion, but you cannot force them to do any of those things. Equally, your superiors will be keeping a tight rein on budgets so to get the resources you want will require you to make a strong case in support of your demands. All such instances will require you to influence and persuade others. It’s also important to understand that your ability to do so is not really a separate set of skills at all – there are techniques of course such as how you frame and then make persuasive but your capacity for bringing others around to your point of view will be based upon a number of key factors:
Your ability to ‘connect’- When seeking to persuade others it matters greatly whether you can truly connect with them. This is not to imply that you can only bring others around to your way of thinking if they like you, or feel a bond with you; nevertheless, changing opinions certainly becomes easier if the people you are trying to persuade (one or many) feel some form of connection with you. And you will connect with people on the following basis:
- Credibility – you need to have credibility in the eyes of others if you hope to exert influence over them.
- Trust/Integrity – if people don’t trust you, or if you are seen to lack integrity, then you can forget about influencing them in a positive way.
- Passion and enthusiasm – as touched upon earlier, without these qualities your ability to influence others is going to be severely restricted.
- Empathy – unless you can put yourself in the shoes of others, you will find it very hard to develop arguments that respond to others’ needs.
Your ability to build a compelling case A basic assumption when seeking to influence others is that you can make a strong case which creates a win–win situation for both parties, or as close to that goal as you can achieve. In other words, you will rarely be able to give the other party everything they want or expect, but what you propose must meet their needs to some extent and not solely yours. In terms of framing a balanced case, consider the following points:
- Be clear on who has the power to deliver what you want and who can put obstacles in your way.
- Understand others’ frames of mind and identify what needs your proposals can satisfy for them:
- What are their expectations and demands in relation to the issue at hand
- What problems might you be able to solve for them with your offer
- What opportunities might arise for them if they follow your lead
- What are their likely objections and how might you respond to them?
- Plan your pitch: in advance, think how to get their attention quickly, stimulate interest and how you will emphasise the benefits accruing from your proposals. Define those key outcomes in terms that will be meaningful for them – be specific not vague.
Your ability to make your argument – Of course, it goes without saying that having defined your case, you then need to make it in a way that really influences others and that challenge applies both in formal and informal settings. All the points made earlier about content and context of communication apply fully here too of course. Also, as you make your case:
- Engage people as you progress, build support as you go – don’t wait until the end for a ‘yes’ or no’ answer. For example, even getting people to agree that they are unhappy with the status quo shifts them a little in the direction you want them to go.
- Do not attempt to oversell your proposals – read the situation continuously and when you feel you have done enough, ask for their response. Make that call for action.
- Be ready for objections – listen to them when raised and address those concerns by offering tangible solutions.
- Clarify agreement and next steps before ending.
There is research which shows that, in general, people are strongly influenced by experts, or those who can show they deeply understand a particular subject. Therefore, when interacting with others, successful influencers tend to play up their knowledge levels regarding the matter at hand in order to increase their impact. Of course, the danger here is not to do so in a manner that is perceived as condescending by those you are seeking to win around; coming across as an arrogant know-it-all definitely won’t help, so you always need to find the balance appropriate to your audience.
Given the changing dynamics of work today, you are called upon as a manager to influence your people far more often than someone in your position may have needed to do even 10 years ago, so it is something you should seek to master if you haven’t already done so. Yes, it is harder to ‘sell’ than ‘tell’ but it’s infinitely more productive in the long run.
The focus here has been on how to make yourself better understood by using various communication skills, styles and techniques to your advantage. Communication is such a vital part of what you do as a manager, and no matter how long in the tooth you are, there is always room for improvement.
Enjoy your day!
(1) Anderson and Kilduff, ‘“Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-To-Face Groups? The Competence-Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance.” (2009) 96 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pp. 491-503.