Communication Fail — How to dig your way out of the leadership ditch.

June 6, 2018
3 min read
Cool Hand Luke, 1967
"What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
— Donn Pearce

When Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke lay bleeding in a ditch, he was caustically told, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

If that (metaphorically) happened to you, you might get better at communicating. There’s nothing like a painful lesson.

Most often, when communication breaks down, nothing happens. There’s no message, just missage.

Hitting the mark, getting through and clearing the clutter is the business of a leader. A leader’s job is to translate. Building that skill in conversations is a lifetime’s work.

A leaders job is to translate.

The Chocolate Conversation is a call for clarity. In her book, Rose Fass reveals lessons from her lifetime of work. She shows the ingredients of chocolate conversations, and the recipe to make them effective.

Chocolate conversations strike when one side is talking and the other side nodding. Both sides believe they understand each other — but they don’t. Chocolate conversations leave you bleeding in a metaphorical ditch of misunderstanding.

We see three common mistakes that kill communication. They happen to companies large and small. With bureaucratic businesses, and nimble ones.

Failure #1. Not facing into reality.

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before. A company faces bankruptcy. All hope appears lost. Up stands the courageous leader, who says, “We will grow. We will turn this company around.” Stirring music plays in the background.

Sounds nice, right? Wrong.

Inspiring words can be effective, but not when your team sees the writing on the wall. The team faces tough deadlines and tougher customers, and has no patience for false encouragement.

To them, rousing words are more harmful than helpful. You can keep the Kool-Aid.

The fix:

Leaders must balance optimism with the concerns of their employees. They must maintain positivity without coming across as unrealistic. Upsetting this balance is a recipe for mistrust. With mistrust, employee engagement, productivity, and business soon disappear.

Failure #2. Episodic communication.

What happens when a chain of command breaks down? When leaders don’t translate, messages distort. Mixed messages ensue.

What’s said at the top is different from what’s heard at the bottom.

For every organization we’ve seen — top down, passed on, messages are the norm. We call this the cascade, and it’s crucial in the business world. From the CEO to the frontline employee, PowerPoint-fueled messages are communicated episodically. At each level of the company, they are communicated differently. The message’s original context never reaches the employees for whom it’s most important.

The fix:

Leaders can fix this issue by using message discipline. Pick a few issues, not every issue the company faces. Clarify and simplify. Use emotional language and stories that break through. Most of all, leaders have to walk the talk. Sticking to the message, amplifying it, and repeating it to get the idea through.

Episodic communication ceases, and operations can run at their best.

Failure #3. Communicating without a goal.

How often does your communication achieve its intended impact? Or — perhaps a better question — what is the intended impact of your communication?

If your answers to these questions are unclear, you are communicating without a goal. You have unintentionally created a gap.

Good communication isn’t about working through a topic list. It’s about being clear in your mind about the impact you want to have. It’s about knowing the outcome you want to achieve.

The fix:

Fix this gap by being clear on your goal. Most likely, you want to frame (or reframe) the way people see the world, to move them to action, or even to do both.

Climb out of the communication ditch.

It’s unlikely we will suffer Cool Hand Luke’s painful path to better communication, but the lessons are the same. When leaders communicate unrealistically, episodically, or without a clear goal, bad things happen. A disconnect develops between senior executives, employees, and clients.

Failure to communicate destroys trust and ends relationships. Leaders wonder why people aren’t executing on the strategy. They struggle to shape culture. They wonder where their business has disappeared to.

Only leaders who define clear goals and get people on board can escape Luke’s ditch.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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