“What’s the name of the guy on first?”
"Who is on first?"
“I don’t know!”
“Oh, he’s on third. We’re not talking about him.”
The Red Sox victory in the 2013 World Series might seem to have more to do with really good baseball than with effective communications. In fact, the World Series was an example of amazing communications at a great many levels: not just the simple stuff, like the hand signals the catcher would flash to the pitcher, but also the degree to which each player seemed to know exactly where each of the other players would be at any given moment.
The Sox victory is also a good opportunity to remember a different example of baseball communications: Abbott and Costello’s immortal “Who’s on first?” routine. “Who’s on first?” remains one of the funniest comedy routines of all time, in which an increasingly frustrated Lou Costello attempts to figure out the names of the players in the New York Yankees. Bud Abbott’s explanations only manage to make things worse, at one point leading Costello to believe that the first baseman’s name is “Naturally.”
“When you pay the first baseman, who gets the money?”
As a comedic patter, “Who’s on first?” continues to generate side-splitting laughter more than sixty years after it first aired. Unfortunately, when a similar level of confusion arises in a business environment, the resulting interplay is not nearly so amusing. When this problem comes up, the tradition is to nod sagely and talk about problems with communications.
In fact, communications get the blame for an awful lot of organizational problems. Sometimes it’s even justified.
In order to function, members of any organization have to communicate with one another. If they don’t, not a whole lot gets done. The trick is to recognize the patterns of communications, the nature of the message, and what a failure to communicate is telling you.
In many groups that believe they aren’t communicating, they really are: just not with one another. If you’re talking to the wrong person, it doesn’t really matter how many good communications tricks you learn. Effective communications require a sender and a receiver. When you only have one of the two, it doesn’t work so well. As obvious as this may seem, I observe it being forgotten time and time again.
For example, many years ago, I worked for IBM in Palo Alto. I vividly recall sitting in a meeting that was unbearably long even by the standards of IBM in those days. Although there were six people in the room, the entire conversation was dominated by two people: first one would explain his position, and then the other would explain his position. Then the first would repeat his position, and the second would repeat his position. This continued well into the afternoon. When I eventually pointed out that neither of them was saying anything new, they both responded, “This is called communicating.”
Well, no, actually, it’s not. In fact, although both were sending, neither one was receiving. In addition to wasting time, this sort of “conversation” eventually causes each person to perceive the other as stupid or unreasonable. “Why won’t he listen??” is the common refrain. Both of these gentlemen had legitimate concerns about the direction of the project. However, they were each bringing up those concerns with the wrong person: neither of them had the information the other was seeking. In this case, the real problem was that they needed to stop looking for answers. Instead, they needed to figure out what the questions were that they needed to answer, and then go outside of that meeting and get those answers.
Another not-so-subtle point about communicating is that you also need to make sure that you’re all speaking the same language.
Again, this may seem to be rather obvious. After all, if people aren’t speaking the same language, wouldn’t they know it? In the Abbott and Costello routine that I opened with, Bud and Lou appear to be speaking English; in that sense, they are speaking the same language. However, they are each using language in very different ways; the comedy comes from the fact that neither of them realizes it.
When groups have only been working together for a fairly short period of time, we see a similar pattern emerge. Although everyone in the group appears to be speaking the same language, they are each using language differently. Each person has a different idea of what the group’s goals mean, how to accomplish them, and what constitutes appropriate ways of working and behaving in the group. Those assumptions underlie the language being used. Until such time as those differing assumptions are explicitly brought forward, everyone on the team is essentially playing an elaborate version of “Who’s on first?” only without the comedic timing.
While this phenomenon is most common with teams that are relatively new, it can also happen with more experienced teams. A good clue is to see how well team members argue.
There is an old saying that a couple is not married until they’ve had their first fight; the same is true of a team. When no one argues, that’s a good clue that team members are not actually speaking the same language. Argument is a sign that the situation is starting to change. Helping a team learn to argue effectively is really an exercise in helping everyone in the group develop a common language, shared values, and agreed-upon assumptions about what the goals are and how the work should get done. That takes some serious effort; it’s easy to forget how much time the Red Sox spent training before we saw them play!
It Is All About You
Leaders easily and naturally become the center of communications in their group. Practically speaking, as it were, this means that no matter who is talking at the moment, the leader is the only one viewed as a valid sender or a valid receiver. People might address the group, but the message is really just for the leader; this is particularly true in groups where the leader is the one making the decisions. Similarly, no matter who is speaking, group members will often attempt to gauge the leader’s response before expressing their own. If we were to draw the information flow, it would look like a wheel, or sometimes a letter Y or a chain, with the leader as the center. Once you know to look, it becomes comparatively easy to spot.
“But we send emails to everyone!” is a refrain I hear quite often. That may be true, but it doesn’t change the basic wheel structure. When you are communicating in a wheel, many people will ignore the email until the leader responds or will rapidly recalibrate their responses once she does. The goal is to transform the pattern into a star or a circle where everyone talks, and listens, to everyone.
One of the very frustrating facts about leadership is that you need to spend a lot of time and energy getting people to engage. At first, most members of the team are probably unwilling to say much, particularly to one another. It is easy for a leader to get used to that and stop inviting people into the conversation. If you fall into that trap, you’ll find that before long your team can barely manage to sneeze without your help. Keep drawing people out, keep inviting, and keep thanking people when they are willing to contribute. Eventually, you’ll successfully prime the conversational pump and then your problem will be managing the flood!
The level of urgency of the communications also matters. Some years ago I worked for one Silicon Valley company where my manager had a habit of walking into my office just before noon and asking for information that he needed “immediately.” So much for lunch.
I quickly noticed that no matter how urgently he needed the information, he would not act on it for days. The urgency was really about satisfying his needs for control rather than any real business need. I learned to leave for lunch earlier.
When all communications are “urgent” or of “high importance,” then pretty soon none of them is. People discount the urgency, which leads to an increase in “volume” from the sender. This triggers another round of scurrying about until people realize that this new level of urgency is also a chimera. Unfortunately, when you constantly amp up the urgency, you have the side-effect of reducing communications, not increasing it. In the end, all that really happens is that stress levels go up and information flow is blocked. Save the urgency for the things that really are. If you are convinced you always need an instant response, odds are something else is very wrong.
Speaking Words of Mistrust
Senders, receivers, common language, appropriate levels of urgency, are all important. However, even if you do all of that, having the right foundation for your communications is also critical to how your message is perceived. When it comes right down to it, there are really only two foundations that matter: trust and mistrust. In a very real sense, everything you say and do determines which foundation you will have. That foundation will determine how effective your communications are.
At technology startup Soak Systems, the CEO, whom we’ll refer to as Luke, once made the comment, “I guess I should have pushed back harder.”
He was referring to a disastrous product release, one whose eager anticipation by the company’s largest customer was exceeded only by that same customer’s anger and disgust when he finally received it.
In the inevitable post-mortem, it quickly came up that Luke had made at least a couple of attempts to play with the product before it was shipped but that engineering had “refused to let me see it.”
In retrospect, Luke felt that if he had only insisted more strongly, then clearly engineering would have complied and he would have been able to identify the problems and save the release.
While it was gallant of Luke to accept some of the blame for the disaster, he was actually missing the point. In fact, the question is not whether Luke could push back hard enough to convince engineering to cooperate. The question is why he was in that position in the first place. Why, as CEO, did he need to push back that hard just to get basic cooperation? It’s hard to imagine how a release that disastrous could occur without plenty of warning. If nothing else, the stink should have been obvious.
Effective communications comes from building trust, and trust comes from taking the time to build connections with employees and from, yes, communicating. The problem is that, as a manager, director, or CEO, people don’t typically drop by to chat. If you want to get people talking to you, you need to seek them out. Luke didn’t do that. By comparison, Ken Olson, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, was famous for just dropping in to chat with different people. He was trusted as few CEOs have ever been; employees believed that he cared about them personally.
Luke, on the other hand, talked only to the people he’d worked with in other companies. When he came down to engineering at all, it was mainly to exhort them to do more or complain that they weren’t doing enough. When it became clear that the release had problems, the engineers had mixed feelings about talking to Luke. They couldn’t decide whether he would yell at them and go ahead anyway, threaten them and go ahead anyway, or simply ignore their input completely and go ahead anyway. The VP of Engineering wasn’t able to help them figure out which one it was either, so they decided to simply say nothing.
This is, perhaps, not the best way to establish strong and effective communications with your team. Imagine what the Red Sox would have been like if none of the players bothered to talk to any of the other members of the team! Come to think of it, we don’t need to imagine; we just need to look back at the 2012 Red Sox!
Now, the fact is, Luke was certainly communicating with the rest of the company. His particular choices of what to say and how he said it served to build a foundation of mistrust, not a foundation of trust. Sadly, in this environment, the speed of trust had nothing on the speed of mistrust.
In the end, whether you communicate like the 2013 Red Sox or like Abbott and Costello is completely up to you. Build your foundation of trust, pay attention to the information flow and decision making, make sure you’re speaking to the right person, and take the time to build that common language of goals, values, and assumptions. The secret to making the choice is simple: there is no secret. It just takes a willingness to engage with others and some hard work. Or, you could skip all that and choose to end up lost in the weeds.
Costello: Now how did I get on third base?
Abbott: Why, you mentioned his name.
Costello: If I mentioned the third baseman's name, who did I say is playing third?
Abbott: No. Who's playing first.
Costello: What's on first?
Abbott: What's on second.
Costello: I don't know.
Abbott: He's on third.
Costello: There I go, back on third again!