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The many ways poor communication can prove fatal

Communication is a complex process. If you don't get your point across in a way the other person can easily understand, then you leave your words open to their interpretation and individual translation.
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Conveying information isn’t something we’re all good at. But for the boss of a company, communication comes with the territory. And probably the best advice you can get in terms of addressing others is that we’re all different – including thought process, the way we identify emotion, interpret written words and react to certain tones of voice.

This very concept, as important as it may be, is often neglected – and it has its concequences. So we scoured the web for different ways employers could go wrong on the communication front.

(1) A case of mistaken policy

No company has offered as many business lessons as Costa these past few months – like how not to deal with the public after a hygience scandal. One could even say, especially on the customer side of things, that its constant issue is communication.

But we’re going to delve into the aspect of failing to reiterate corporate goals and policies in “times of need”. Not too long ago, a TV cameraman was almost prevented from buying a homeless man a drink and sandwich. Two employees explained that if they allowed such an act, they would be prosecuted. “It’s not our policy,” they said. “It’s from the security of the station and the police.”

Of course, both National Rail and Costa alike can’t remember ever putting such policies in place, meaning there was a misunderstanding somewhere down the line. Wording of text may have been misenterpreted, or perhaps guidelines didn’t fully come across in a meeting. Either way, Costa was picked apart by the media because of it. This could have been avoided had staff properly been briefed on policy once more after suffering repuational damage.

(2) Not following or deciding on a cohesive plan

Poor communication is what Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind deemed “the silent killer of big companies” – the title of an article they produced for the Harvard Business Review. In it, they point to the inability to communicate when it comes to strategy. When you’re not listening to others or can’t come to an agreement, you’ve not only wasted time, but are loosing out in terms of getting the upper hand over rivals.

Using Nokia as an example, they explained: “For more than a decade, Nokia was the world’s largest mobile-phone manufacturer. But when the smartphone became the next big thing within the mobility market, the company lost its competitive edge.

“According to an in-depth account of why Nokia has ‘struggle[d]to turn its good ideas into products,’ much of the problem stems from habits of communication that favor unfocused discussions about strategy over clear plans to bring new phone models to market.”

(3) Your door should always be open

Hiding important issues about the company could be seen as lying rather than a communication failure. However, when your company finds itself in a situation that could be doused in a negative media light, it becomes your responsibility to let staff know. Likewise, staff should know they can divulge information about colleagues in the company. Not doing so, can prove fatal.

Take Enron for example, which was part of a research paper detailing the error of not leaving your door open for staff, as well as the communication obligations of senior management. It claimed: “Enron’s senior executives modeled values of greed, ambition, risk taking and a view that established rules and norms did not apply to them. The leaders also failed in their responsibility to be informed about company operations and were unaware of any financial arrangement designed to conceal liabilities or inflate profitability.”

It might sound strange, but just because someone sees something wrong, doesn’t mean they’ll instantly tell you – especially if they don’t feel comfortable sharing information with you. People fear for their jobs, want to keep certain relationships and get nervous easily. Letting people know they won’t be judged is the start to opening those tricky conversations.

(4) When you fail to communicate with partners and seperate teams

When two companies, or same-business branches, team up, communication is vital. Often you won’t be working in the same location, so a brief phone call or email has to be drafted in a simple to understand manner. No point should be left untouched. Otherwise, the concequences could be on par with a famous NASA launch gone wrong.

In 1998, the Mars Climate Orbitor was supposed to make its way to Mars to study its climate and atmosphere. Of course, this never happend. The NASA team lost the communication signal soon after launch. Then, when the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere, it disintigrated – and it all comes down to one big communication error.

It seems two teams were using different metrics. The software ended up using the standard system of pound-seconds. The spacecraft, on the other hand, was built to use Newton-seconds. Sure, we’re human and we all make mistakes. But it highlights the importance of drilling down to the last detail and ensuring both companies or teams are on the same page.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is the deputy editor of Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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