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Are You Sure People Get What You’re Saying?

Last Saturday’s (11/30/13) episode of A Prairie Home Companion featured a skit where Guy Noir was hired by Bob Raymond, vice president of compliance and alignment at Ka-Ching Ching Superstores, to discover why his employees are so disgruntled.  Here’s what he said when he met Guy:
Let me give you the lay of the land here . . . the bottom line here at Ka-ChingChing is that we need to bring something to the table and take it to the next level and reach out and partner with our employees and empower our customers to build our deliverables.  A solutions-based outcome. More additives and fewer minuses.”
When asked what the take away was, Bob Raymond replied:
I'm saying it's time to take a step back and tee up the ball, put our game faces on, get the oar in the water, stay focused, sharpen our pencils, shift gears, think outside the box, get traction, give 110% and move the needle.  At the end of the day, it's about success. That's the takeaway here. It's a win-win situation. Are we in agreeance? Let's run with it, people.
And with that, Bob Raymond was gone.  Wow.  Bob Raymond may be extreme, but what makes him funny is that we’ve all heard something similar before.  When it’s our boss, the situation turns from funny to frustrating.  
One of the basic tenants of effective group functioning is the importance of clear goals.  The same is true for the people who work for us.  What do you want the outcome to be?  How much autonomy do you want your employees to have on a particular project?  These are questions that aren’t always answered clearly and the people who work for you waste precious time trying to figure it out.
One problem in communicating clear expectations is that we communicate from our own perspective and we automatically assume that others know what we know and can therefore understand what we understand.  A famous study conducted by psychologist Elizabeth Newton for her dissertation illustrates this.  Study participants were asked to tap out the rhythm of a well-known tune selected from a list (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is one example) and predict how likely a second participant could identify the tune.  The tappers predicted that the listeners would be able to recognize the tune 50% of the time.  In reality, listeners identified the correct tune about 3% of the time.
Why was there such a huge disparity?  Tappers could hear the song playing in their heads as they tapped out the rhythm but the listeners only heard a strange series of taps.  The tappers automatically connected the taps with the song and couldn’t imagine the listeners weren’t doing the same thing.
I had a senior executive tell me recently that his goal for a subordinate is for him to “take it to the next level” and become a “better team player.”    Clearly the executive has "a song in his head" of what that means.  But when pressed to provide more clarity, he foundered—because he knows it so well he can’t communicate it or he knows it at a surface level but hasn’t devoted enough energy to clearly envisioning what he’s looking for, or he knows what he doesn’t want and isn’t clear about what he does want.  Whatever the case, the subordinate is in the dark.
I believe organizations could be a lot more effective if bosses at every level remembered that clear communication takes a lot of work up front but saves invaluable time in the long run.  John Kennedy’s call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade” is absolutely clear and concrete.  What if he had said our goal was to “win the space race?”  What tangents would NASA have pursued? Could Congress and the nation have agreed on what that goal meant?  How much time would have been lost identifying how to win the race?
Instead, Kennedy gave the nation a concrete vision everyone understood.  Creating such a goal requires putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and considering what their perspective of the situation is.  It requires thinking through what you want and painting a very clear and specific picture of it for others. It requires imagining the impact of your message on the people you want to influence.  What do they understand?  What do they value?  How will they hear your message?  It requires probing for what you want instead of what you don’t want.  It requires more effort on your part—but it is time and energy well spent.

Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership and professional development.  She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.


2 Responses to "Are You Sure People Get What You’re Saying?"

  • susan buniva
    December 7, 2013 - 10:33 pm Reply

    As a communications expert, I think you have done an outstanding job of illustrating the importance of a shared language and common metaphors as well as the compelling need to find out if you have been understood with the specificity desired.

  • Joyce hann
    December 9, 2013 - 1:42 am Reply

    Even common terms used in business and organizational development can mean different things to people because we have had different contexts for them. Thanks for bringing this into focus!

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