Genuine Understanding: Does Your Company Have It? What About Your Department?

by Paula Bartholome

If mutual understanding is the goal of communication, then broad workforce understanding is the goal of employee communication. The author describes how to recognize understanding when you see it; and, how to promote understanding, so you’ll see it more often.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion it has been accomplished.”

Misunderstandings in the business world have always caused trouble. However, they have more impact today because there is:

  • More to understand and therefore more to misunderstand-information is growing exponentially and our ability to turn it into useful action is limited by capacity, interest and perceived need.
  • More interconnectedness and interdependence-working in teams and across cultures increases the potential for and impact of misunderstanding.
  • Often no lag time in which to correct problems-many decisions can be implemented at Internet speed, made possible by today’s communication and collaboration technology.
  • Less opportunity for what Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School faculty member calls “human moments”-the combination of physical presence with the emotional and intellectual attention among people. The face-to-face communication so important to ensure understanding of multifaceted or novel issues or to addressing problems or conflicts.

Flattened organizations and demands for “business at the speed of thought,” computerized decision support systems and short-term performance horizons all magnify the impact of misunderstanding. The business world has become so complex that it’s possible that most people may not genuinely understand another’s position or idea most of the time. Yet, there is an overwhelming sense of urgency, a constant push and rush to seek agreement and buy-in and consensus and an even more demanding expectation: commitment.

The Price of an Unnecessary Misunderstanding

There is a saying that whenever two people in business never disagree, one is unnecessary. Still, disagreements that result from misunderstandings are not productive.

Research conducted nearly 10 years ago among executives at the country’s 1,000 largest companies by temporary staffing firm OfficeTeam found that that ineffective or inadequate communication caused people to waste, on average, 14 percent of every 40-hour week. This means a full seven weeks each year per employee wasted, one way or another-reworking tasks or products, missing opportunities, duplicating efforts and on and on. In addition to the personal frustration and anxiety created by inadequate communication, there are also hard-dollar costs.

Using the research findings, in a hypothetical 500-employee firm with an average salary of $500 per week, inadequate communication wastes nearly $2 million annually. Factor in increased time pressures and complexity from working with geographically remote and/or culturally different associates and partners and it’s not surprising that despite technological advances, this basic situation probably hasn’t improved much, if at all, in the intervening years.

A recent example of the cost of misunderstanding was cited in a USA Today article analyzing the causes of AT&T’s split into four business units at the end of 2000. The columnist noted that the reaction from Wall Street analysts and business leaders to the announcement was that “AT&T, as an important, powerful force in American industry, is done.” The company failed because there was no clear understanding of its purpose as there had been prior to its breakup in 1984. The article noted that the person who was brought in to correct the situation, C. Michael Armstrong, AT&T’s CEO, never achieved understanding:

“Armstrong had the deck stacked against him. He was an outsider, so it would’ve been hard for him to truly understand AT&T. Not that he seemed to try: Within months after joining the company, he cut his first major deal, then kept them coming. He skipped understanding and went right to action.”

While AT&T undoubtedly had more problems than this single one, being unclear about purpose can exact a high price from an organization and its employees. For most of us, if we don’t understand something, we aren’t going to take the risks and exert the energy commitment entails. We may be willing to comply and be involved, but no more. As the saying goes, the hen is involved in breakfast, the pig is committed!

What Must a Leader Do to Make Employees Genuinely Understand?

Genuine understanding requires a conscious approach and the opportunity to participate in a process made up of specific behaviors and conditions:

  • Active Listening: being open to what is said without judgment; paraphrasing to ensure understanding.
  • Courageousness: Taking the risk to learn something that challenges you or your values can be uncomfortable, as can risking being the source of that communication to another.
  • Empathy: appreciating what others experience as they convey their thoughts to you.
  • Generosity: believing the best about the others’ intentions and acting with good, transparent intentions yourself-not manipulating information.
  • Patience: accepting that sometimes people need to “work through” their thoughts to discover what they mean as they say it.
  • Single-mindedness: accepting understanding as a worthy goal, not pushing to reach agreement, giving up the need for a specific outcome.
  • Questioning assumptions: inquiring (versus advocating) to obtain the clarification, definition, context or whatever is missing that will allow you to reach genuine understanding; the assumptions may be yours or another person’s

What Must the Organization Do to Make Broad Understanding Possible?

According to psychologist Solomon Asch’s work in the 1950’s, three conditions contribute to effective communication: allowing anything to be up for discussion; recognition by participants that, at least in some ways, they are alike; and recognition that, at least in part, they share a world view. These conditions develop over time-itself a crucial factor, not to be overlooked!-and are helped by face-to-face contact and opportunities to get to know each other.

A million barriers can prevent a work force from achieving a common understanding. If employees aren’t allowed to move away from their workstations or attempt to “multitask” through the process, it’s not likely to work. If there are no opportunities to ask questions and to question assumptions, the process can easily break down. Similarly, if individuals don’t have a common lexicon and don’t address it, the process is likely to fail.

However, if the conditions are met and the behaviors are maintained, there is a powerful by-product: trust. People experience a process that respects them and their ideas and opinions while allowing for differences. While having others agree with you is usually pleasant, it isn’t always possible in the workplace; but maintaining strong, effective working relationships is not only possible, it’s crucial.

Of course there are times when a quick decision and action is necessary. There’s no point discussing assumptions about fire if someone yells the word in a crowded office. Everyone needs to move and clarify the situation later. Also, there are times when there isn’t enough at stake to bother using this process.

However, it’s very appropriate when organizations seek commitment to a major course of action, especially when opposing, strongly-held beliefs threaten to fracture the work force. Such a situation occurred when a suburban Chicago hospital entered into conversations with another Chicago hospital about a merger. On the surface there were many synergies. The two organizations involved employees on task forces who worked carefully for two years on planning how the process would occur, what employees would reside in which location, how sophisticated, expensive equipment would be transported and other decisions. Finally the merger was announced with much fanfare. New signage was placed throughout two communities to let the public know.

Then, suddenly, less than two years after the announcement, after all the time and money that went into it, the merger was dissolved. What happened? Each hospital’s administration had assumed a genuine understanding of the other’s philosophy about family planning. It turned out that the acquiring institution did not permit any family planning activities to occur. The acquired institution saw family planning as part of their charter. Each organization and its employees were strongly committed to their belief and thus the merger dissolved. Clearly, the thousands of wasted hours and millions of wasted dollars could have been saved by getting genuine understanding on one, up-front question.

The Bottom Line

Ineffective communication has a real cost. Besides the lost productivity that occurs immediately, over time trust erodes and this impacts performance and makes change more difficult. Without regular communication that allows people to reach genuine understanding, employee commitment is impossible to achieve.

So where do you start to build the skills and culture that supports effective communication and ultimately commitment? While it makes sense to start practicing the skills and behaviors when dealing with smaller, less complex issues to experience some successes, the key is to start. Otherwise, leaders and employees may continue to act on the basis of faux agreement or simply comply temporarily, leaving everyone the poorer for missing an opportunity to exercise their knowledge and creativity in the service of long-term success.

Related reading:

  • Asch, Solomon E., Social Psychology, Prentice-Hall, 1952
  • Hallowell, Edward M., The Human Moment at Work, Harvard Business Review, January/February 1999
  • Kurtzman, Joel, An Interview with Charles Handy, Strategy & Business, (Booz, Allen & Hamilton), Fourth Quarter 1995
  • Maney, Kevin, USA Today column, “Failure to define company’s purpose led to AT&T’s 4-way split”, Nov. 1, 2000 (www.usatoday.com/money/columns/maney.htm)
  • OfficeTeam, “‘What are you talking about?’ survey reveals seven weeks per year lost to poor communication” PR Newswire, Nov. 10, 1993
  • Tannen, Deborah, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, Random House, Inc., 1998

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drawing on 20 years of policy-level experience, Paula Bartholome helps individuals and organizations gain a new perspective on communication and organizational issues to enhance performance, strengthen working relationships and increase job satisfaction. She also teaches courses on using stories in business settings at DePaul University’s School for New Learning. For more information, go to www.parallax-perspectives.com.

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