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On Effective Communication

Effective communication is a cornerstone of success. Think of any long term success and I bet it involves great communication. That’s true of an AI company, a football team, a band, a professional kitchen, a marriage, a friendship and everything and anything else that requires people to succeed. If you’re not communicating well, you will experience setbacks. It’s that simple.

The challenge is that effective communication is hard, especially in large groups such as a corporate setting. And, because most people think they are already strong communicators, there is a tendency to take it for granted. But, the art of communication is as complicated and unique as the people who are communicating. Everyone hears things differently, processes things differently, interprets things differently and responds to things differently. 

Because of those individual nuances, communication is complicated. Today, on top of that, there are now so many different platforms for communicating — in-person, phone, text, email, instant messager, social media and so on — that the method of communicating adds additional complexity and impacts the effectiveness of the message. It’s not just about choosing the right message, but picking the right platform to deliver it. While there are more opportunities to get your message out, it actually makes it harder than ever to ensure collective message comprehension and understanding. For instance, what one person believes should be a simple email, another person may believe requires an in-person touch. 

As a philosophy, I believe there are three pillars of great corporate communication. First, always lead with honesty and transparency. Communicating well starts with honesty. Honest messages can sometimes be difficult to communicate, but in my experience, I never ever regretted the plain truth — I have regretted avoiding the truth because it was too difficult to communicate. Avoidance never works, it’s best to deliver a message with candor no matter how personal or difficult. In corporate communication, transparency also plays a key role. It is important for employees to not only understand the decision, but the rationale for it, too. That doesn’t mean it is the goal of the communication to gain consensus, but just communicating a decision without some level of transparency as to the rationale is a fail.  

Second, communicate both on an enterprise level and locally. I believe that the most effective communication occurs on a local level.  When there are important things to be communicated on an all-hands basis, this often means receiving a top level message from executive leadership, but then quickly followed by more detailed discussions on a local level, whether that’s by your manager, team lead, site lead, or someone else.  At the end of the day, all employees want to know how a decision affects them personally, and that’s hard to achieve in one all-hands communication. However, when people get together in a local or team environment, there is more opportunity for dialog, questions, and concerns, which typically leads to a deeper understanding of the communication itself. This means executive leaders must educate and empower managers with the right information to lead those local discussions. And, local leaders must support and enhance enterprise-wide corporate communications.  

Third, when in doubt communicate more and keep talking. It’s really easy these days to avoid speaking with someone face-to-face or over the phone, but talking with one another is still the best form of communication for many reasons.  Even when we communicate things in writing, we should always be willing to talk about them, too. If an email thread is not achieving its objective in fairly short order, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and talk it out. If you don’t understand a document, resist the temptation for a prolonged back and forth in the comments section and call a meeting to get aligned. While we will always need to communicate certain corporate-wide messages in written form, we should always be available to engage in a dialogue as well.  Written communications in a corporate setting are important because it puts all employees on equal footing. It allows all employees to receive the exact same message, with access to it at the same time, and in the same format. But, the communication can’t stop there. That must be a launching point for further discussion and we should never avoid talking about important things.

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