The biggest transformation that we have seen in the past few decades has been in the ability and the frequency of communication. We have more methods and attempts to communicate today that would have been unthinkable just a decade or so back. Effective management and leadership is dependent on effective communication. Increasing emphasis is being placed today on effective communication in all institutions may it be government, military, business, etc. In fact in no other area have the best and most intelligent people in senior management worked harder than on improving communication in major institutions.
Understandably, communication is a vital management component to any organisation. Whether the purpose is to update employees on new policies, to prepare for a weather disaster, to ensure safety throughout the organisation or to listen to the attitudes of employees, effective communication is an integral issue in effective management. To be successful, organisations should have comprehensive policies and strategies for communicating with their constituencies, employees and stakeholders as well as with the community at large.
Communication impacts all areas of the business; every conversation with a customer, an employee, any meeting, etc. With employees, it is how goals, visions and ideas are communicated. With customers, it is almost more important as communications impact the face of the business and how it is portrayed externally. For governments, it is all about getting the message of their performance or reasons for lack thereof across.
Yet effective communication is as elusive as the unicorn. The noise level may have surely gone up, but there is clearly less communication and more noise today. The main reason being that most people in major institutions including government and management ignore the basic fundamentals of effective communication.
Effective communication is about building perceptions as well as meeting expectations. It is critical to understand the difference between effective communication and providing information which is in fact largely opposite though interdependent.
An old riddle in religious mythology asks: Is there a sound in the forest of a tree crashing if no one is around to hear it? The answer would be no as yes there would be sound waves but there is as such no sound unless someone perceives it to be. Sound is created by perception. Sound is therefore also part of communication.
This answer may be simple, but there is a message in the riddle. It is the audience or recipient who communicates. The so called communicator or the person who made the sound does not communicate. He only made the sound, however unless it is heard it is not communicated and it is simply noise. An eminent thinker Socrates points out that one has to talk to people in terms of their own experience, that is, that one has to use carpenters’ metaphors when talking to carpenters, traders when talking to traders and so on.
This means one can only effectively communicate in the recipient’s language or in his terms - a simple fact that people continue to miss in all the painstaking briefings we continue to witness. Effective communication has to be in the recipient or audience terms and it really does no good to try and explain the terms to the audience as they will not be able to understand if it is beyond their perception.
Effective communication is thus based on audience terms and their ability to perceive. Then comes the expectation part. We perceive as a rule what we expect to perceive. We see largely what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear. That the unexpected may be resented is not that important though most of the focus of communication strategy in any government or organisation is targeted towards managing the resentment of the expectation gap of communication.
The unexpected is usually neither understood nor perceived as the human mind resists any “attempts to change its mind”. Therefore, in order to make communication effective it is critical to understand what the recipient may perceive and what it expects and only then one may be able to communicate.
Communication can only be effective when it creates some form of demand from its recipient otherwise it is either noise or fillers. Take for example a newspaper which runs multiple headlines and key stories but then it also fills out the pages with fillers.
As such, fillers are irrelevant stories and unnecessary information that has no need, but is still read and may even be remembered. It is however irrelevant as it is not communication since it has no demand from its recipient. Communication however if effective makes demands that the recipient become somebody, do something or believe in something.
If the communication fits in with the aspirations, the values, and the expectations of the recipient, the communication is considered powerful; however, if it goes against his aspirations or expectations then it is largely ignored or at best, it is resisted. Of course at its most powerful and effective form, communication brings about “conversion” that is change of personality, values or beliefs, but such conversion is rare and such communication very powerful and inspiring.
However, communication is different to providing information. Communication is about building perception whereas information is logic and purely formal. In fact information has to be devoid of any emotion or value and therefore should not be based upon perception or expectation in order for it to be reliable and fact based and thus actually informative.
Information is the basis of communication so essentially it presupposes it. However, in order for that information to be useful to its recipient it requires management in the form of communication. More and better information will not solve the communication problem as it does not bridge the communication gap. On the contrary, the more information the greater is the need for effective communication.
The basic reasons for failures in communication in any organisation may it be government or business is the attempt to communicate downward. This effectively is trying to communicate information with what we want to say without understanding the perceptions or expectations of the recipient with whom we intend to communicate with. It is therefore upward communication which is required, meaning to understand the recipient and then define the message.
In true management terms, effective communication is the understanding of divergence in perceptions between superiors and subordinates or management and employees. Till such time that divergence exists any message put across would either not be understood or simply resisted.
It is critical for management of organisations therefore to primarily understand the perceptions and expectation of their employees and similarly for employees to understand the reality of decision making, problems of priorities and above all responsibility of a decision. This is somewhat similar for governments as well as they are unable to understand the perception or expectation of the public and therefore unable to manage communication.
Most importantly there can be no effective communication of it is considered to be going from one to another. Communication is only effective when it is perceived as between “us” which means where perceptions and expectations of both are aligned. Communication of vision, mission and goals is effective when it is shared and believed in by all and the expectations and beliefs of both management and employees are aligned with each other.
The writer is a staff member