Dangerous Assumptions

I was in a discussion recently with a group of employees who were sharing their thoughts about how much they missed the company-wide executive updates that had, at one time, occurred on a quarterly basis. It seems that the room in which the group had been meeting became over crowded because of the growth of the organization. With the overcrowding, the senior leadership team decided to forgo the meetings in favor of passing information through department heads, at least until better facilities became available. I thought the insights of the group were interesting as they expressed their desire to hear from their leaders. They indicated that the lack of communication had left them feeling detached and out of the loop, even somewhat disengaged from what is in the minds and even in the hearts of the leaders. It also opened the door for misinterpretation of events and dangerous assumptions that were not necessarily favorable to the heart and intent of the executives.

Although this was a highly engaged and committed work group, the lack of communication from the executive team sets the stage for turning a very positive culture in the wrong direction. When left to make their own interpretations and assumptions you can be sure that people will reach different conclusions than what you, as their leader, would like for them to.

I was in conversation with a CEO of fairly large, very high performing organization recently who seemed to understand this better than most. When our discussion turned toward communication he made it pretty clear that this was one of his top priorities, even though it is not necessarily on his list of favorite things to do. He mentioned that from a personality perspective he is an introvert and would rather do a lot of things other than stand in front of a group, but that he does it because he believes it is critical to his team’s success. He said that he tries a variety of ways to communicate with the entire team on a regular basis. One month he may conduct a town-hall meeting. On another he may send a newsletter or a comprehensive e-mail. He said he never lets a quarter go by without a town-hall meeting, because without such meetings and communications that keep people informed and up to date, the misinterpretations and false assumptions will take on a life of their own and potentially undermine everything else they are trying to accomplish.

Another organization I worked with became pretty creative when they experienced similar overcrowding. They were so intent on developing and creating a high performance culture of engagement, that they utilized broadcast voicemails and WebEx interface until they were able to move into a larger facility. But as soon as they moved into the larger facility they made a couple of acquisitions that took them across the country and around the world. They immediately purchased video conferencing system that could be used for all kinds of communications, one of which was their monthly “state of the company” meetings. Those were especially invaluable to them during the initial downturn in the economy when there was so much uncertainty. The CEO wasn’t a master public speaker, but he was a great communicator. During that downturn, the employee engagement, productivity and growth of the company exceeded all expectations and industry benchmarks.

Another example comes from the largest company in the world which I had the privilege of working closely with for over 15 years. Wal-Mart makes it a high priority to communicate with their Associates. They do it in large groups, via in-store satellite broadcasts, e-mail, twitter, small store meetings, Saturday morning meetings facilitated by the executives, executive broadcast voice mails, quarterly state of the company meetings conducted by members of the executive team, through their Friday morning officer and senior management meetings, which are immediately followed by department meeting updates to disseminate the information just shared, and on and on, I’m sure. In a company of that size, I guess you just cannot over communicate! I believe that is one of the elements that helps make a really large company feel small and entrepreneurial.

I personally believe that this is true for companies of any size. The higher the quality of the communication, the higher the employee engagement. It is easy for leaders to lose sight of this critical success factor. They are in the thick of things every day, and those they hang out with most of the time are right in there with them. It is easy for them to believe (assume) that everyone is on the same page, or that people will understand why they are too busy for such meetings, or that someone else is communicating the message they want to have delivered. Now those are dangerous assumptions!

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