Communication Breakdown

This article is about an easily overlooked and taken-for-granted skill set that can submarine your business if you're not careful. For the excellent Led Zeppelin song, see Communication Breakdown.

I recently attended a little retreat with some clients and their clients. It was a bit out of the way and in the middle of nowhere (kinda the way Mars is), so we took a very small plane to get there and arrived on a grass landing strip. Several people called me crazy, but it was actually a really cool experience.

Since space was limited and golf clubs take up space, one of us had to sit up front. This meant I got to see out the windshield and put a headset on. While I was talking to Joel—our pilot, who incidentally leads a sales team as his primary gig—I got to listen to all the chatter among the other pilots and air traffic controllers in the sky.  

I noticed something... There's constant communication between everyone involved. Air traffic controllers to pilots. Pilots back to ATC's. "Change your frequency to..." "Request permission to go to 22,000 feet..." "What's the weather like up there?"

There was even a situation where a control tower made us aware of some heavy rain that we did not see. We looked around and could not verify it, and the pilot then checked his own instrumentation and radar maps before replying back that we could not confirm the presence of any rain (there weren't even many clouds that day). The control tower thanked us, and we moved on.

Everything was incredibly collaborative, and nothing was taken for granted. When you’re carrying people inside metal tubes flying through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, you can't afford to skip details. Every change in altitude, pitch, or direction was confirmed before it was executed, and there was a ton of mutual respect between the sky and the ground. 

I looked over at Joel and said, "You are relentless about your communication up here in the sky, yet in every company I've ever worked for, it's one of the first things to get taken for granted." He nodded, and in true pilot fashion said, "Affirmative."

Think about your organization. How many email messages do you get a day? Then add in your WhatsApp and Slack channels, meetings, memos, voicemails... There's so much being communicated, a lot of it gets lost in the shuffle. If it's in writing, then you've covered your butt, but just because you sent it doesn't mean it's going to be read.

Then ego gets involved. How many times have you told your manager what she wants to hear about your sales forecast, rather than what you knew to be a smaller, but more accurate one? How often then, do you think she takes that inaccurate forecast to the VP, and maybe inflates it a little more? Nobody wants to say anything disappointing and feel the wrath of an angry executive at QBR. Thus, the strategy of "let's see if we can't pull a rabbit out of a hat this quarter" is born.

I talk to a lot of sales managers who like to rail against "lazy" sales reps who just aren't working hard enough. Then I talk to those same sales reps who are running themselves ragged with unproductive activities because they never got real leadership or guidance. Perhaps it was given and not clearly understood, or the messages were mixed, but whose fault is it when that rep doesn't hit his number? It doesn't actually matter, but do you think those two people are going to sit down and rationally figure it out? Not usually.

I can go on and on (I'm sure you can too), so I'll stop there. But I want you to consider what your organization would look like if there was more transparency. What if your team's objective was more important than the individual roles and narratives involved? What if everybody cut the BS and just got their job done? In short, more goals would be attained.

This may seem like an unattainable goal to you. Maybe your organization is too big for you to feel like you can change it. But you can make positive strides. Start with your team or your business unit.

Tips for improving communication:

  • Be more honest about your challenges.

Seek guidance from your manager instead of just telling her what you think she wants to hear.

  • Keep 'reply all' messages to a minimum.

If the group needs to discuss it, have a meeting. If you don't need a meeting, put it in a memo. If a memo's too much, then it probably doesn't need to be said to the group.

  • Minimize non-vital communication.

Promise to keep chatter to a minimum on work-related channels so that you have time to understand and respond to the important stuff.

Somebody has to break the cycle. It might as well be you.