1. Introduction to Business Communication – Business Communication for Managers

Chapter 1

INTRODUCTION TO BUSINESS COMMUNICATION

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere.”

 

Lee Iacocca1

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the value of communication in the business world.

  • Appreciate the role of technology in shaping business communication.

  • Appreciate the significance of maintaining lines of communication.

  • Learn about the barriers to communication and their influence on organizational and personal communication.

  • Understand the role played by the internal communications department in facilitating effective communication.

All activities involve some form of communication. Discussions with one's boss and co-workers, conversations with peers, interviews, meetings, presentations, memos, letters, faxes, and telephone exchanges are all forms of communication that take place in organizations. Regardless of one's official designation, if one is managing or even interacting with people, then communication is an essential part of one's job.

Effective communication requires competence in five major areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and non-verbal communication. Writing and speaking are transmission skills (sender-related skills), and listening and reading are reception skills (receiver-related skills). Skill in non-verbal communication is the “fifth dimension of communication.” Effective communicators are able to use non-verbal messages for a broader impact.

A manager's responsibility is to coordinate, train, control, and review the performance of others and to oversee results. In the process of doing so, they interact with others in meetings, interviews, and interpersonal exchanges, as well as via reports, business proposals, and presentations. Managers have to learn to manage their own communication (personal communication), their communication with others (interpersonal communication), and their communication within an organizational context (group communication) to achieve the desired results.

Five factors have contributed to the growing importance of effective interpersonal communication at the workplace:

  • Technology: E-mail, voice mail, text messages, and online chats are some of the means through which technology has pervaded our lives. Technology has affected the workplace to such an extent that face-to-face communication has been sharply declining over the years. The demands of technology have made it imperative that communication be quicker and easier to understand. This means that the language has to be simpler, sentences shorter, and paragraphs coherent and concise. It also becomes imperative to convey emotions and sensitivity even when messages are short and crisp. This requires effective communication.
  • Diversity: Organizations are employing more diverse people than ever before. Differently abled employees as well as employees belonging to different cultures mingle and work together. Effective communication at the workplace must therefore employ both sensitivity and tact.
  • Dispersal and decentralization: Most global organizations are geographically dispersed today, in order to better manage the scale of operations and achieve greater efficiency. This places new demands on one's communication skills, since the traditional top-down communication is ineffective in such organizational setups. When communication is not centralized, organizations must develop a comprehensive corporate communication strategy.
  • Time constraints: Executives are increasingly pressed for time. With time as a premium, communication needs to be more crisp, focused, and precise. This requires excellent analytical skills and the ability to express oneself clearly and succinctly.
  • Legal liability: As organizations grow more professional, legal issues need to be kept in mind. The written or spoken word is susceptible to misinterpretation. Messages must therefore be carefully crafted to carry home the point without harming, defaming, or maligning the reputation of the recipient.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

Effective communication is essential for the survival and progress of a business concern. Managers use effective communication skills to get work done. This includes crafting meaningful and persuasive messages and business correspondence and using new media to get messages across.

Communication is effective when it produces the desired action in the reader or audience. Effective communication means the message is understood and acted upon, and not merely sent to the recipient. The ability to communicate effectively is essential for a business executive. As Lee Iacocca pointed out in the opening quote of this chapter, a person may be immensely knowledgeable or skilled, but if their ideas are not communicated properly, those ideas are as good as absent.

Successful communicators build immense goodwill. They have a positive impact on the stakeholders within the organization, including employees, supervisors, seniors, customers, suppliers, and associates. Effective communicators also build goodwill for the company they represent. Successful communicators are also good planners and possess the skills to transfer their knowledge and ideas to the people whom they work with at all levels of the organization.

Successful communication is the foundation of a cordial and pleasant working relationship between workers and the management, between subordinates and supervisors, and between customers and suppliers. Efficient internal and external communication policies result in cordial relations and willing cooperation among employees.

Ineffective communication systems, by the same logic, result in mismanagement. They can destroy trust and engender ill will, depending on the context. A poorly worded message may result in a communication breakdown. On the other hand, good communication contributes to better service, removes misunderstandings and doubts, builds goodwill, promotes the business, and earns favourable references.

When a group of industrial engineers were asked in a study in 1990 how they might improve productivity, communication concerns drew the strongest responses. More than 88 per cent of the engineers surveyed stated that the lack of communication and cooperation among different components of a business leads to reduced productivity.2

CEOs have also recognized the importance of communication. A study by A. Foster Higgins and Company, an employee-benefit consulting firm, found that 97 per cent of the CEOs surveyed believed that communicating with employees positively affects job satisfaction. Furthermore, the survey found that 79 per cent think that communication benefits the bottom line; but surprisingly, only 22 per cent communicate with employees weekly or more frequently.3

Communication Bytes 1.1

The advisory firm Corporate Executive Board (CEB) conducted a survey that revealed that, in order to retain talented people, a company should direct its employees towards the right goals through proper communication. Just 21 per cent of the surveyed employees were found to be completely aware of, and working towards, the company's goals. Poor communication and an incompetent manager might be the reason behind this. If the manager-led approach doesn't work, then the Town Hall approach, in which the senior management engages directly in a dialogue with employees, might be successful. The survey also revealed that employees who were more engaged in the process of job design were likely to be more satisfied with their jobs.

A major Indian IT company recently caught an employee in the finance department embezzling funds. In order to avoid such cases, it is always important to improve employee confidence in the organization. The top managerial rung should be consistent in behaving ethically and dealing decisively with misconduct. It is also important for the management to recognize the emotional toll that recession takes on employees and to ensure that communication regarding finances is always frank and focused on employee concerns.

 

Source: Adapted from Mahima Puri, “High Performers Head for Exit During Economic Recovery,” The Economic Times (March 15, 2010), available at: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/jobs/High-performers-head-for-exit-during-economic-recovery/articleshow/5683778.cms, accessed on January 4, 2011.

GOALS OF COMMUNICATION

Organizational communication is purposeful. There are three objectives to such communication:

  • To inform: When the objective is to inform, the speaker is merely elucidating facts, instructions, rules, guidelines, explanations, and examples.
  • To persuade: When the intention is to persuade, the speaker aims to change both perception and mindset. The communication is intended to bring about a change in the target, from the current to a desired state, through a series of planned statements.
  • To mobilize: When the intention is to mobilize the recipient of the message, the speaker focuses on an action the target should take. Communication is considered complete when the target has received the message and understood it, and agrees to act upon it.
POINT COUNTERPOINT
Good communication can only be in proper English. Good communication requires clarity of message, irrespective of the language used.
Communication occurs when the message is sent. Communication occurs when the message is received.
Communication is a natural process. Communication is an acquired/learnt process.
One cannot change one's basic style of communication. Communication can always be improved, depending on the feedback one gets or takes.
Good communicators are excellent orators. Good communicators speak and listen equally well.
Communication is about maintaining relationships within an organization. Communication is also about getting a task done in the minimum possible time and within a reasonable cost.
Communication is abstract. Communication can be measured.
ONE-WAY AND TWO-WAY COMMUNICATION

Communication may be considered one-way when no reply is expected or desired. For example, a public notice outside a room stating “Trespassers prohibited” is a command or order that does not require a response. In organizations, most communications are two-way, with some feedback or response desired from the receiver.

If an official response were desired to a sign prohibiting entry to a particular location, a different means of communication would have to be used. Instead of putting up a notice, a memorandum or brief e-mail message would have to be sent to the heads of all departments informing them that entry was prohibited to that particular room. The sender could ask for the message to be acknowledged or for the heads of the departments to report what action they were taking to put the order into effect. If the sender wanted to make the message more persuasive, a reason for the request could be given—for example, the need to preserve security in a sensitive zone.

DIRECTIONS OF COMMUNICATION

Within any organization, the characteristics of a particular piece of communication vary based on whether the message is going vertically (top-down or bottom-up) or sideways. Vertical communication involves movement of a message from superiors to subordinates and vice versa. Horizontal or sideways communication involves movement of a message between employees of equal rank. This is illustrated in Exhibit 1.1.

The main uses of vertical downwards communications are:

  • To give orders or instructions
  • To provide or ask for information

The main uses of vertical upwards communication are:

  • To describe the results of actions
  • To provide information that has been requested
  • To make requests or appeals

The main uses of horizontal, or sideways, communication are:

  • To keep equals informed of actions taken or results achieved
  • To seek the counsel or opinion of peers
  • To discuss problems
  • To chat informally
CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION

There are three main channels of communication:

  • Spoken: This channel includes meetings, presentations, oral instructions, chats, discussions, and so on.

 

Exhibit 1.1 Directions of Organizational Communication

Top-down Bottom-up Sideways
Circulars E-mails E-mails
Newsletters Proposals Chat
Memos Applications Intranet communications
E-mails    
Meeting agendas    
  • Written: The written form of communication includes bulletin board notices, circulars, letters, memoranda, reports, proposals, and notes.
  • Electronic: This method includes e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, phone messages, voice mails, and blogs.

Visual aids such as charts, graphs, diagrams, photographs, and other illustrations are often used to support messages. They summarize information and present it in a striking manner.

METHODS OF COMMUNICATION

A variety of methods are used in each of the three channels. Some methods are used mainly for internal communications, while others are used mainly for external communications.

  • Meetings: Face-to-face communication offers opportunity for discussion and immediate feedback. The sender and receiver can catch the cues and clues that they receive from each other and modify the message according to this immediate feedback. But face-to-face meetings are sometimes costly to arrange in terms of time and money. Essentially designated as communicative events, meetings involve the framing and coding of the agenda, determination of participation criteria, channel-selection, and identification of the norms of speaking and interaction.
  • Presentations: Managers, often accompanied by members of their staff, use presentations to explain a project or plan to colleagues and persuade them to accept the presenter's point of view. Visual aids such as transparencies projected onto a screen are often used to illustrate points. Presentations are also given externally to clients or potential clients. For example, an advertising agency might make a presentation of its advertisement campaign. Presentations allow a large amount of complex information to be communicated to a large number of people at the same time. They also provide opportunities for feedback and discussion.
  • Written Messages: Formal business communication is written. This allows for a permanent record to be created and used for later reference. Written communication results in delayed feedback, however, as it usually takes time for messages to reach their targets.
  • Public notices on bulletin boards: Public notices on bulletin boards are easy and cost-effective methods to communicate the same information to a large number of people. However, there is no way to ensure that notices are read and registered; even if they are read, they might be ignored.
  • Memoranda: A memorandum or memo is a top-down form of written internal correspondence. Nowadays, memos are sent through e-mail and are also called e-memos. Memoranda are still one of the main means of communication within a business. Used to disseminate information, they are useful for making arrangements or requests and sending confirmations.
  • Reports: Reports are widely used in business. They are the written equivalent of presentations. Visual aids such as charts and photographs are often used to illustrate reports. There is generally a standard format for a report. Most reports include the name of the author(s), a title, a brief introduction, headings or subheadings for each section, a conclusion, and a list of recommendations.
  • Staff bulletins or magazines: Many big firms publish bulletins or larger—often richly illustrated—magazines to give employees information about the company, to make them feel they are part of a team, and to increase their morale.
  • Electronic messages: In this day and age of electronic communication, information has to be disseminated quickly, and electronic methods provide the means to do just that. Economical and efficient, they allow for speedy transmission of information.Feedback is usually quick, and messages are nearly always recorded. However, electronic systems are not easy to install. And in order to avoid “crashes,” high levels of maintenance are required.

 

 

Public notices via bulletin boards are easy and cost-effective methods to communicate the same information to a large number of people.

 

  • Telephone conversations: One of the earliest and most widely prevalent means of communication, telephones are used for both internal and external exchanges. Mobile telecommunication using Short Message Service (SMS) is now in vogue.
  • Communication through computers: The personal computer (PC), which processes data at enormous speed, has revolutionized communication as well as many other aspects of business. By using different kinds of software, PCs can perform a variety of tasks, including word processing for letters and documents, storing information on a database, and making financial calculations using a spreadsheet.
  • Communication through local area networks: Firms can connect all computers in the same building to form a local area network (LAN). Linked computers can communicate with each other and also share common facilities, such as printers. The PCs are all linked to a more powerful computer or server, which stores a vast amount of information and can send relevant parts of a business plan to computers in different departments. A LAN makes it easier for managers to access information from other departments and also monitor the work within their own department. By using a modem, messages can be sent along telephone lines. This enables the computer to become part of a wide area network (WAN), which links it to other computers anywhere in the world.
  • Video conferences: Video conferences are online communication tools that facilitate interaction between two or three geographically dispersed units of a global firm. Communication is synchronous and the speaker is able to see and interact with the people at the other end.
  • Fax: A fax or facsimile machine can send an exact copy of a document to another fax machine anywhere in the world. The sender places the document in a fax machine, dials the fax number of the recipient, and the fax machine at the other end prints a copy of the document automatically. Letters, plans, diagrams, and drawings can all be transmitted in this way.
  • E-mail: The Internet provides electronic mail or e-mail service to users all over the world, and is much quicker and cheaper than the traditional postal service. The service provider stores the message in an electronic mailbox until the receiver views it.

 

Exhibit 1.2 discusses the various ways in which people might communicate within an organization.

LINES OF COMMUNICATION

The line of communication proceeds in two directions and moves back and forth. It is a systematic means of keeping in touch with a business partner. Frequently, people assume that communication evolves on its own, but this is not the case. This is especially true in cases of international negotiations, where contact and correspondence are critically important to understanding the other side's needs and viewpoints.

Maintaining an open line of communication is important for two main reasons. First, it affects the degree and quality of the relationship that has been created with the partner during negotiations. Second, it creates a positive impression on the partner regarding the seriousness of one's intent and helps to build a strong, long-term business relationship.

COMMUNICATION NETWORKS

Communication channels are linked in a number of ways to form communication networks. A communication network demarcates the positions of the senders and recipients of information in a communication loop. It affects the quality of team decisions as well as team dynamics. The questions that need to be resolved while setting up a communication network are:

  • Who should be a part of a particular network?
  • What channels of communication should be devised to carry the information forward?
  • Who are the primary and secondary recipients of the information?
  • Who controls or regulates the flow of information from one point to the other?

There are two types of communication networks: centralized and decentralized. In centralized networks, information is stored and retrieved from a central pool or repository. The information has to pass through multiple links to reach the intended audience. This type of network values power over parity and centralized decision-making over a democratic process. Though decision-making is quicker in this type of network, member satisfaction is low. On the other hand, in a decentralized network, information is made available to everybody in the network. Decision-making is consultative and participative, and everybody has a stake in the information-processing and decision-making processes. This is particularly useful when task complexity increases and creative solutions are required to make effective decisions.

 

Exhibit 1.2 Ways to Communicate in Organizations

 

Chain networks, hairpin networks, and wheel networks are types of centralized networks, whereas star-shaped and circular networks depict decentralized networks. Exhibit 1.3 illustrates circular, wheel-shaped, and chain networks.

NEW COMMUNICATION MEDIA

In these days of the so-called Thumbing Generation, when the Internet is easily accessible and very popular, there are over a dozen different channels of communication. Exhibit 1.4 provides an overview of these new media.

Social media is a channel that facilitates dialogue between employees, the organization, and external sources. Previously, people could get in touch with each other through an e-mail, a telephone call, or a voice mail. However, the new media offers communication at different levels. Contrary to popular belief, it is more a facilitator of communication than a marketing tool. It employs modern media much like an e-mail to connect to employees, customers, and clients in an engaging and ongoing manner. Recruiters, customer service professionals, potential clients, and press may actively get in touch with an individual or a company through social media to engage them in meaningful ways. Networking for referrals, sharing information about one's organization, easy monitoring of customer complaints, and compliments are a few benefits of utilizing social media in organizations. Thus, social media allows us a wider reach than a telephone, e-mail or voice mail.

There was a time when a face-to-face conversation was the starting point of all relationships. However, things have changed today. Relationships might also start through the public interactions facilitated by Twitter and Facebook. Short, crisp messages can be sent via Twitter and people can widen their social networks with the help of Facebook. Thus, social media is an open and transparent medium to share and elicit public responses from individuals, organizations, and brands. Once a preliminary contact has been established, formal or informal communication may follow.

 

Exhibit 1.3 Some Communication Networks

 

Exhibit 1.4 New Communication Media

 

Source: Adapted from Mary Munter, “What are They Talking About,” published in Proceedings of the Association for Business Communicators (ABC) National Convention at Lake Tahoe, Nevada (2008).

VERBAL AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

In the mid-1960s, Paul Ekman studied emotions and identified six facial expressions that are universally recognized: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Although his contentions were controversial at first (reports suggest that he was booed off the stage when he first presented his research to a group of anthropologists and was later called a fascist and a racist), they are now widely accepted. However, an ongoing controversy is about the amount of context needed to interpret these facial expressions.

According to researcher Albert Mehrabian, 55 per cent of the content of a message is the visual component, 38 per cent is the auditory component, and 7 per cent comes from the language used. However, these percentages only apply in a very narrow context.

Dr Mehrabian was interested in how listeners get information about a speaker's general attitude in situations where the facial expression, tone, and/or words are sending conflicting signals. He designed some experiments to investigate this. In one experiment, Mehrabian and Ferris4 researched the interaction of speech, facial expressions, and tone. Three different speakers were instructed to say “maybe” with three different attitudes towards their listener: positive, neutral, or negative. Next, photographs of the faces of three female models were taken as they attempted to convey the emotions of like, neutrality, and dislike. Test groups were then instructed to listen to the various renditions of the word “maybe” while viewing the pictures of the models, and asked to rate the attitudes of the speakers. Note that the emotion and tone were often mixed; for instance, a facial expression showing dislike would be paired with the word “maybe” spoken in a positive tone. Significant effects of facial expression and tone were found in the study. Verbal communication was found to be effective only 7 per cent of the time, the impact of vocal communication was assessed to be effective 38 per cent of the time, and facial expression and gestures had the largest impact (55 per cent). In other words, at least initially, how we communicate was deemed to be more significant than what we communicate.

What finally can be concluded is that when people communicate, a listener derives information about the speaker's attitude from visual, tonal, and verbal cues; however, the percentage derived from each type of cue can vary greatly depending upon a number of other factors, such as the context of the communication and how well the communicators know each other. To deliver the full impact of a message, non-verbal signals are important. Some non-verbal signals are:

  • Eye contact: Eye contact signals interest in others and increases the speaker's credibility. People who make eye contact open the flow of communication and convey interest, concern, and warmth. This is especially useful during presentations, negotiations, meetings, counselling, and giving and taking instructions and feedback.
  • Facial expressions: Smiling is a powerful cue that transmits happiness, friendliness, warmth, and liking. Individuals who smile frequently are perceived as more likable, friendly, warm, and approachable. Smiling is often contagious and people react favourably to a smiling person. Smiling individuals make others feel comfortable and reduce their anxiety. In a genuine smile, the muscles used are controlled by the limbic system and other parts of the brain that are not under voluntary control. In a perfunctory smile, a different part of the brain (called the cerebral cortex) is used. That part of the brain is controlled voluntarily. Fake smiles, thus, use a completely different set of muscles than genuine ones.
  • Gestures: Some people gesticulate while speaking. This often brings vigour and vibrancy to their speech. Lively speakers are perceived as more interesting and captivating than dull speakers, who rarely use gestures. Apart from making the conversation interesting, gestures, when used appropriately, also facilitate greater understanding. For instance, a handshake is a suitable barometer to judge a person's communication skills and personality.

Information Bytes 1.1

Job applicants at a certain multinational fast food joint in Japan are asked to describe their most pleasant experiences. Managers then evaluate applicants by matching their facial expressions with the experiences they recount. If the smile is perceived to be hypocritical, they are not recruited for customer service.

Communication Bytes 1.2

The rules of business etiquette keep evolving but the biggest change in the last decade has been with respect to gender. Today, as more and more women enter the workplace, business has become gender-neutral.

Greetings: Professional handshakes are preferred over masculine or feminine handshakes. The handshake should be firm and quick, and there is no protocol as to who should offer the handshake first.

Business meetings: Both men and women are expected to step from behind their desk to shake hands and offer a seat to their visitors. Maintaining appropriate eye contact, respecting personal space, and escorting visitors to the lobby/elevator at the end of the meeting is expected from all professionals. At business lunches or dinners, the person who extended the invitation pays, irrespective of gender.

Introductions: Men and women are expected to stand for all introductions and when exchanging business cards. Rules for making introductions in the corporate arena are driven by rank or hierarchy and not gender.

Titles: Women are introduced or addressed using the title “Ms” in all spoken and written business communication. If they prefer to be addressed as “Mrs” or “Miss,” they are expected to inform their business associates accordingly.

Propriety: A handshake is the only physical contact between professionals in the workplace. Using terms of endearment, giving excessive compliments, or cracking off-colour jokes is considered inappropriate. There are strict sexual harassment laws regarding offences of such kind.

Civility in the workplace: Women do not expect men to hold open doors for them—the person who reaches the door first is expected to hold it open for the other person. Similarly, the person closest to the elevator door/ car door exits first. Regardless of gender, one is expected to help a colleague carry heavy files, hail a cab, or help with the luggage in an airplane aisle.

 

Source: TNN, “Corporates Team up to Avoiding Gender-bias”, The Economic Times (February 22, 2008), available at: <http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/features/corporate-dossier/corporates-team-up-to-avoiding-gender-bias/articleshow/2803146.cms>, accessed on January 4, 2011.

  • Posture and body orientation: Posture and body stance are the meta-messages that a speaker's body conveys to the audience. An erect posture indicates positivity and confidence while a droopy posture indicates nervousness or passivity. Leaning forward, nodding one's head, and making frequent eye contact indicate receptivity and approachability, while the reverse holds true for leaning backwards, sprawling one's legs, and having a casual style.
  • Proximity: Cultural norms dictate the comfortable distance for interaction with others. Every individual has a comfort zone and a discomfort zone when interacting with others. Proximity not only indicates physical closeness but also less of a power gap between the communicators. The high-backed chair, long table, and distance from the door indicate a CEO's authority and that CEOs generally prefer formality in their approach. A manager who prefers a round table in the meeting room generally gives the impression of being egalitarian in their outlook. A subordinate who places documents on a colleague's table without permission may arouse annoyance in the latter. Generally it is agreed that 18 inches is the distance maintained for friends and family; about 18 inches to 4 feet is the appropriate distance for colleagues, and, for even more formal relationships, 4 feet to 12 feet is suitable.
  • Appearance: This includes attention to clothing, personal grooming, and accessorizing. Our physical appearance reveals our innermost feelings as to how we would like to be viewed by others. It is the most noticeable aspect of self in relation to the external world.
  • Vocal elements: Vocal elements such as tone, pitch, rhythm, timbre, loudness, and inflection are very important for the impact of any message. A strong message conveyed in a dull voice is uninteresting. Speakers who have a coherent argument must also inject passion into their speech for greater impact.
THE GRAPEVINE

The term grapevine is believed to have originated during the American Civil War, when telegraph lines were sometimes strung from tree to tree, resembling grapevines. Because of their rigged nature, these telegraph systems often generated ambiguous and garbled messages. Informal and sometimes distorted messages were hence said to come from the grapevine.

The corporate grapevine is the informal communication network that operates within the organization. It can be described as an invisible flow of rumour, innuendo, and speculation that runs within the informal channel of the organization, often bypassing the chain of command and the official lines of communication. It is necessary for management to provide complete information. If this is not done, then employees will fill in the gaps and the story will take on a life of its own. However, it is not necessarily true that grapevine is harmful. When properly nurtured, corporate grapevine can be a valuable asset. The main way in which the grapevine can help is in getting a feel for the “pulse” of the organization. Employers who truly understand this use the grapevine to get a feel of what the employees think about an existing or impending situation. This helps to assess the morale of the workforce as well as to evaluate the efficacy of the existing channels of communication. It is also useful in identifying the points at which misinformation and misunderstandings occur.

Several studies have explored the use of the grapevine. One study by De Mare5 contends that nearly 70 per cent of all organizational communication occurs at the grapevine level. Research suggests that a person's position in the informal communication network correlates with achievement and demonstration of power. There are several case studies that reveal that managers use the grapevine to outmanoeuvre and outsmart others. Patterns of voluntary turnover significantly link to the heavy presence of informal communication networks within an organization. In fact, a high level of grapevine activity is associated with stress, medication, insecurity, and fear. Studies reveal disparity between a manager's perception of how they communicate and employees' perception of the same.

Certain conditions might impact grapevine activity. These include how intensely employees associate with the grapevine, how important the issue under discussion is to employees, the ambiguity of the situation, as well as the level of trust in the formal communication network.

MISCOMMUNICATION AND COMMUNICATION FAILURES

Miscommunication can occur due to lapses on the part of the sender, the receiver, or the channel used for communicating.

  • The sender: In some cases, the sender is to blame. The message may not be clear and accurate or simple enough to be understood by the receiver. It may be badly presented or so boring or complicated that it fails to hold the receiver's attention. The sender may have not taken care to frame the message according to the needs of the recipient, as a result of which the receiver may tune the message out. At times the sender may use harsh words that cause the receiver to shun the message completely.
  • The recipient: Receivers may be unwilling to take in the message because they are too busy, because they have made up their mind about the issue at hand already, or because they are biased towards the sender or the sender's message. The recipient may be biased towards the sender or have made faulty assumptions about the sender, as a result of which the sender may have fail to make an impact.
  • The channel: The choice of channel may also be the cause of miscommunication. For instance, if the sender uses the phone or writes an impersonal e-mail in a situation when face-to-face communication would have been more appropriate, it may offend the receiver.

There have been numerous well-documented cases of miscommunication in the public arena. For example, the BJP's India Shining campaign had immense political implications. This was an INR 1,000 million campaign that focused on the achievements of the (then) BJP Government of India. The punch line was excellent and the advertisement was well timed and well executed. However, the campaign failed to draw in the crowds at the time of the polls, mainly since the advertisement had targeted only the top two sections of society.

Unintentional communication blunders are also not uncommon. American Motors Corporation once tried to market its new car, the Matador, based on the image of courage and strength. However, in Spanish, the word “matador” means killer. As a result, the car was not popular on Spanish roads. Similarly, in 1999, Crayola was compelled to change the name of a shade of red to “Chestnut” from “Indian Red” because students mistook the latter as a racist reference to the skin colour of Native Americans. However, in reality the name came from a reddish-brown pigment found in India and commonly used in oil paint.6

In 2003, seven astronauts died as the space shuttle Columbia broke upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. An independent investigation team spent months studying thousands of pieces of debris, as well as data recovered from computers that tracked the Columbia's final moments. The conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, published in August 2003, expressed the opinion that a breach of the shuttle's heat shield on take-off caused it to break up on re-entry. The report was also highly critical of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) itself, saying management blunders were as much to blame for this tragedy as technical problems for the destruction of the shuttle.7 As most management blunders happen as a result of miscommunication at one level or another, this might be a lesson no one will forget in a hurry.

On a personal level, miscommunication and unresolved issues usually involve hurt feelings and emotional turmoil. Most often than not, people do not know how to communicate effectively, and this usually has a “snowballing” effect. For example, a misunderstanding with one's spouse might lead one to being distracted at a meeting, which might lead to misunderstandings with a boss or colleagues. This, in turn, might once again lead one to behave grumpily with one's family.

Respondents of a survey report that by far the biggest issue in working with offshore providers is miscommunication. Different communication styles and differing approaches to conflict resolution might result in miscommunication. This, in turn, might hamper productivity and teamwork.

BARRIERS TO COMMUNICATION

Effective communication occurs only if the receiver understands the exact information or idea that the sender intended to transmit. Studying the communication process is important because managers coach, coordinate, counsel, evaluate, and supervise through this process. It is the chain of understanding that integrates the members of an organization from top to bottom, from bottom to top, and from side to side. Despite the best intentions of the sender and receiver, several barriers inhibit the effective exchange of information. Executives estimate that 15 per cent of their time is wasted owing to poor communications with employees. This translates into approximately 8 weeks per person each year.

Some of the various barriers to communication are discussed in this section.

The Noise Barrier

Noise is any random or persistent disturbance that obscures, reduces, or confuses the clarity or quality of the message being transmitted. In other words, it is any interference that takes place between the sender and the receiver. This is why we generally identify any communication problem that can't be fully explained as noise. The biggest single cause of interference in the communication process is the assumption that the act of communicating is a simple process that does not require much thought or practice and that all effective managers are born with this skill. This is not true. Effective communication comes only with study and practice. The effectiveness of the communication process is dependent on the capabilities of the people involved.

To overcome the noise barrier, one must discover the source of the noise. This may not be easy. Noise appears in a variety of ways. During a conversation, if one is distracted by the pictures on the wall, the view from the window, a report lying open on a desk, or a conversation taking place in an adjacent room, then there is noise affecting the quality of the communication.

Once the source of the noise has been identified, steps can be taken to overcome it. The noise barrier can't always be overcome but, fortunately, just the awareness of its existence can help to improve the flow of communication.

The Feedback Problem

Feedback is reaction. Without it, the sender of the message cannot know whether the recipient has received the entire message and grasped its intent. Feedback includes verbal and non-verbal responses to another person's message. It is thus the return of a portion of the message to the sender with new information. It regulates both the transmission and the reception of the message.

The process is essentially straightforward: the sender transmits the message via the most suitable communication medium, the receiver gets the message and decodes it, and then provides feedback to the sender. When the message is transmitted and effectively received, feedback serves as a regulating device. The sender continually adjusts the transmission in response to the feedback. Feedback also alerts the sender to any disruptive noise that may impede reception of the message. Feedback not only regulates the communication process, but reinforces and stimulates it. In fact, it actually serves as the hallmark of dialogue, because it forces communication and makes it two-sided. Two-sided expression, when combined with mutual feedback, becomes a dialogue.

Feedback can manifest itself in the following ways:

  • Evaluative: Evaluative feedback judges the worthiness of the other person. Here's an example: “I feel that this project has certain language flaws that prevent it from being published in this journal.”
  • Interpretive: Interpretive feedback generally paraphrases the other person's statement. Here's an example: “You mean to say that corruption begins with us, right?”
  • Supporting: Supporting feedback motivates and bolsters the other person. Here's an example: “I agree with your statement that we must not take insubordination lying down.”
  • Probing: Probing feedback seeks to clarify and gain additional information. Here's an example: “What does corruption mean to you?”
  • Understanding: Understanding feedback seeks to decipher the other person's meaning. Here's an example: “What you are trying to say is that we only vote for the corrupt, and that is why we are corrupt in the first place.”

There is no feedback in one-way communication. Such communication involves passing ideas, information, directions, and instructions from higher management down the chain of command without asking for a response or checking to see if any reaction has taken place at all. But as we have discussed, it is not enough to just ensure that the message has been received. For communication to be effective, a two-way process must exist so that the sender knows whether the message has been understood. The two-way communication process involves sending a message down the chain of command and transmitting a response containing information, ideas, and feelings back up the chain. In verbal, face-to-face communication, the process doesn't happen sequentially. Instead, all of these actions occur almost simultaneously. For example, the sender acts as a receiver while transmitting the message, and the receiver acts as a sender providing immediate feedback.

Providing feedback involves two things. First, it involves restating the sender's feelings or ideas (for instance, “This is what I understand your feelings to be. Am I correct?”). This helps listeners understand and evaluate what the other person is saying. Second, feedback involves using appropriate non-verbal cues. (e.g., nodding your head to show agreement, or frowning to show poor understanding or lack of agreement.) Note that a Japanese person nodding their head during a presentation is anything but agreeable to the content of the presentation. This is contrary to Indian norms, where nodding one's head indicates understanding and agreement. This gesture isn't a positive one in Japanese culture.

The Problem of Media Selection

In any given situation, the medium or transmission mode for communication must be selected. The medium chosen may be personal or impersonal. Personal media includes face-to-face communication, chat using instant messaging, videoconferencing, phone calls, voice messages, and other synchronous modes. Impersonal media includes e-mail, blogs, voice mails, text messages, decision support systems, and other asynchronous forms of communication. Any media might use oral or written forms. Oral forms include presentations, meetings, chat, and the like. Written communication may be in the form of letters, e-mails, notices, circulars, and so on. Sometimes, a combination of media is used to deliver a message.

The selection of media is made by the manager, though in many cases it may also be decided by general organizational norms and practices. If the media selection is a personal choice, message transmission depends on the following:

  • Personal inclination
  • Personal experience in media selection and message optimization
  • Personality characteristics

On the other hand, if media selection is based on organizational norms, message transmission depends on the integration of information technology, information systems, and social communication issues within the organization, as well as the capacity of the system to support feedback, accessibility, and quality of the information used for decision-making and knowledge management.

The media becomes a barrier to communication when the wrong channel is selected. For instance, if an employee is asked to leave an organization by e-mail rather than in a face-to-face interaction, the communication is bound to be characterized as insensitive. On the other hand, a letter appreciating an employee's work is held in greater esteem than mere verbal praise. Generally speaking, media selection should be matched with the requirements of feedback. If immediate feedback is required, synchronous forms of communication are preferred. If there is no immediate need for a response, an impersonal medium will do just fine. Studies have also revealed that the role of culture, media accessibility, and media apprehension are important factors for the choice of channel.

Sometimes, the complexity of the message decides the medium. Complex messages usually demand a written format, and simpler messages require a simpler format. But it is not always easy to determine what is simple and what is complex. Asking for a promotion is not a very simple task, but should it not be communicated verbally?

Mental Barriers

In our own way, we all see the world differently. The perceptual process determines what messages we select or screen out, as well as how the selected information is organized and interpreted. There is significant chance of noise in the communication process if the sender's and receiver's perceptions are not aligned.

Many times, noise exists in the mind of the sender or the recipient. This may be due to many factors, such as the emotional state and attitude of the sender or the receiver, faulty assumptions, stereotyping, fixed beliefs, and a closed mindset. A closed mindset could be a result of defensiveness (when we feel someone is attacking us), a sense of superiority (when we feel we know more than others), and egocentricity (when we find it difficult to see things from someone else's point of view).

Stereotyping causes individuals to typecast a person, place, event, or thing according to an oversimplified belief and opinion. Thus, actors can be perceived as vain, self-centred artists, professors can be viewed as overtly intellectual and pedantic, politicians as wily, and models as empty-headed individuals. Stereotyping prevents us from viewing a person, situation, or event in an open and new way. It functions as noise in the communication process because the receiver or sender ends up drawing conclusions based on preconceived notions. If the sender or the receiver believes that they know everything about the subject being transmitted, they expect acceptance of those ideas. Any ideas to the contrary are perceived as threatening, and this, in turn, leads to poor communication.

Failure to attune the message to the audience's sensitivities also acts as a major barrier to communication. The speaker may assume that the audience's logic is similar to their own, and this may lead to unfair assumptions on their part. Presence of strong bias, a closed mindset, and irrational attachment to a certain belief or approach might hamper communication and lead to poor exchange. In such a case, ego clashes become inevitable, as there remains no common ground between the sender and the receiver. Preconceived attitudes also affect our ability to listen. For instance, some people listen uncritically to people with a higher status and dismiss those they perceive as being of a lower status.

The Problems of Language and Articulation

Words and gestures carry no inherent meaning. The sender must ensure that the receiver understands the symbols and signs being used. Language and communication dynamics have become the driving force in international business operations in recent times. Though technology has paved the way for globalization, the latter can't be successful without the correct negotiation of cultural factors such as the use of language. Language that describes what we want to say in our terms may present barriers to those not familiar with our expressions, buzz words, and jargon. When we couch our communication in such language, it can become a way of excluding others.

Three potential language barriers are the use of improper words, the use of jargon, and ambiguity.

  • Use of improper words: Words, when improperly used, create the wrong impression. Most words have more than one meaning and, often, different implications in different cultural contexts. As words are widely used for communication, it is important to address any potential barrier that may occur from their use. One way to penetrate the word barrier is for the sender to write or speak in relation to the receiver's background, experiences, and attitude. The more the focus on the audience, the greater is the effectiveness of the communication. S.E. Hayakawa, a U.S. Senator from California, expressed it very well when he said, “The meanings of words are not in the words; they are in us.”8

    At times, messages may be vague and unclear. For instance, “Please submit your report by tomorrow evening” is a vague message that leaves one in doubt about what kind of report is being dicussed and when exactly it needs to be submitted. In contrast, “Please submit the feasibility report between 4 and 5 tomorrow evening” is precise and clear in its intentions.

    To communicate effectively, we must try to see ourselves through the eyes of others in the communication link. By empathizing with the people to whom we direct messages, we might recognize the need to modify our messages from time to time before sending them. Douglas McGregor, one of the leading authorities on management practices, says that, “It is a fairly safe generalization that difficulties in communication within an organization are, more often than not, mere symptoms of underlying difficulties in relationships between parties involved. When communication is ineffective, one needs to look first at the nature of these relationships rather than at ways of improving communication.”9 Thus, the ability of the sender to penetrate the communication barrier is determined to a large extent by the depth of the relationship between the sender and the receiver.

  • Use of jargon: Jargon includes technical language and acronyms as well as recognized words with specialized meanings in specific organizations or social groups. A well-known multinational computer software giant promotes the use of jargon as it believes that it can potentially improve communication efficiency when both the sender and receiver understand this specialized language. Jargon also shapes and maintains the organization's cultural values and symbolizes an employee's self-identity in a group. However, jargon can be a serious communication barrier at times. The use of jargon in some situations can promote a form of technical snobbery that may prevent employees from receiving important knowledge and undermine relations with customers.
  • Ambiguity: We usually think of ambiguous language as a communication problem because the sender and receiver interpret the same word or phrase differently. If a co-worker says, “Would you like to check the figures again?”, they may be politely telling you to double-check the figures. But this message is sufficiently ambiguous that you may think they are merely asking if you want to do this. This does not make for effective communication.

Ambiguous language is sometimes used deliberately in work settings to avoid conveying undesirable emotions. CEOs sometimes refer to the “integration processes” with other companies. This sounds better than words like “merger” and “monopoly.” Software firms for example, do not warn computer users about fatal software errors; they are “undocumented behaviours.” And when millions of customers of a software company suffered through significant e-mail delivery problems, the company described the incident as “a partial e-mail delay.” Why the obfuscation? Customers tend to respond more calmly to integration processes, undocumented behaviours, and partial e-mail delays than to monopolies, fatal software errors, and e-mails lost for weeks or forever.

 

 

Research shows that one of the most important factors in building cohesive teams is proximity. As such, round tables are perceived to promote egalitarian thinking.

 

Ambiguous language may be a barrier, but sometimes it is necessary when events or objects are ill-defined or lack agreement. Corporate leaders often use metaphors to describe complex organizational values so that they may be interpreted broadly enough to apply to diverse situations. Scholars also rely on metaphors because they convey rich meaning about complex ideas.

Physical Barriers

Physical barriers in the workplace include marked-out territories into which strangers are not allowed, closed office doors, barrier screens, separate areas for people of different statuses, and so on.

Research shows that one of the most important factors in building cohesive teams is proximity. As long as people still have a personal space that they can call their own, nearness to others aids communication because it helps team members know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Office infrastructure and designs of tables, meeting rooms, and conference halls are subtle indicators of power hierarchy and status. Round tables are perceived to promote egalitarian thinking, while a rectangular table denotes that authority is vested in one person sitting at the head of the table.

Personal Barriers

One of the chief barriers to open and free communication is the emotional barrier. It comprises fear, mistrust, and suspicion. Emotional mistrust of others often has its roots in the directives we might have received as children, such as “Don't open your mouth to speak until asked.” As a result, many people hold back from communicating their thoughts and feelings to others. They feel vulnerable. While some caution may be wise in certain relationships, excessive fear of what others might think of us can stunt our development as effective communicators and our ability to form meaningful relationships.

Cultural Barriers

When we have to be a part of a group, the unwritten understanding is that we accept the collective code of conduct or behaviour. Sooner or later we become part of the group and adopt its behavioural pattern as our own. This is perceived as a sign of acceptance by the other group members, and is rewarded by inclusion. In groups that are happy to accept newcomers and where newcomers are happy to conform, there is a mutuality of interest and a high level of win–win contact. Where there are barriers to membership in the group, power conflicts replace effective communication.

Interpersonal Barriers

Interpersonal communication is communication between two people, groups, departments, or organizational units. By building bridges and inducing commonality, organizational members seek task satisfaction and job fulfilment. However, not many people build interpersonal relationships. There are levels at which people distance themselves from one another:

  • Withdrawal: Withdrawal is where interpersonal contact is shunned and an individual refuses to be in touch.
  • Rituals: Rituals are when interpersonal contact is perceived to be mere formality, devoid of genuine interaction.
  • Pastimes: Pastimes are where interpersonal relationships are perceived as social but superficial activities to be indulged in when one is free.
  • Working: This is when interpersonal activities are confined to discussions at work, but no further.
  • Games: This is where interpersonal activities are considered to be subtle, manipulative interactions that are about winning and losing.
  • Closeness: This is the aim of interpersonal contact, and happens when there is a high level of honesty and acceptance of yourself and others.
  • Technology: This is where interpersonal satisfaction is sought through social networking sites.

Information Overload

Every day, Dave MacDonald was flooded with up to a hundred e-mail messages. The former Xerox executive was reportedly bombarded with voice mail, faxes, memos, and other pieces of information. “Without some kind of system in place, I'd spend practically all my time trying to sort through it and not get much of anything else done,” says MacDonald.

Just like Dave MacDonald, thousands of workers around the world deal with hundreds of e-mails, phone calls, voice mails every day. It is no wonder that people are overwhelmed. Information overload occurs when the volume of information received exceeds the person's capacity to process it and it is a significant obstacle in the path of effective and smooth communication. It can be overcome by either increasing the capacity of processing information or by reducing the amount of information that is being processed. For example, working for longer hours might help reduce some amount of information overload. However, that is a feasible solution when the overload is not a permanent fixture and only temporary. Screening messages, condensing information, and ignoring information not deemed as important are other ways of reducing information overload.10

Passive Listening

Hearing and listening are two distinctly different things. Hearing is an involuntary act and happens when we receive aural stimuli. Listening, on the other hand is a voluntary activity that involves interpreting the sound one receives and decoding its meaning.

People engage in two types of listening: passive and active. Passive listening is little more than hearing. It occurs when the receiver of the message has little motivation to listen carefully. Listening to music, stories, television programmes, or pretending to listen while merely being polite in another's company may be cited as examples of passive listening. Exhibit 1.5 categorizes the habits of good and poor listeners.

People speak at 100 to 175 words per minute (WPM), but they can intelligently listen to 600 to 800 WPM. Since only a part of our mind is paying attention, it is easy to go into “mind drift” (thinking about other things while listening). The cure for this is active listening, which involves listening with a purpose. This purpose may be to gain information, obtain directions, understand others, solve problems, share interests, see how another person feels, show support, and so on. Thus, active listening requires attending as well as engaging skills. A few traits of active listeners are:

  • They listen more and talk less.
  • They are not judgmental.
  • They do not finish the sentences of other people.
  • They do not allow bias to creep in.

 

Exhibit 1.5 Habits of Good and Poor Listeners

Good listeners Poor listeners
Talk less Interrupt frequently
Ask open-ended questions at the end Finish the sentences of the speaker
Make eye contact Let their attention wander
Nod frequently Dominate the conversation
Take brief notes Argue to win
Repeat and paraphrase as necessary Wait for their chance to speak
Accept that everybody has different views Are judgmental
Focus on the words rather than the personality of the speaker Form biased opinions
  • They stay focused.
  • They are not swayed by the speaker's persona.
  • They seldom dominate conversations.
  • They do not plan responses.
  • They do not interrupt the speaker.
  • They take mental notes while listening.
  • They do not jump to conclusions.
  • They engage in open-ended conversations.
  • They indicate their engagement by gestures and make proper eye contact.

Listening is different from hearing. Listening involves not only the ears, but also the mind and heart. Listening is not always easy, but it can be learnt. Here are a few suggestions to listen better:

  • Lean forward and make eye contact with the speaker. Nod your head to show understanding.
  • Take notes as you listen. Jot down the key points.
  • Clarify points that you do not understand. Politely interrupt the speaker or raise your hand.
  • Paraphrase what the speaker is saying; do not judge until the speaker has finished talking.
  • Subdue your inner voice. Focus on the topic.
  • Ignore distractions.

Getting the attention of the audience is an art, but it can greatly improve with practice. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Organize your material into manageable chunks of information. Audiences tend to get bored with monologues. Listening is easier if the key points are described sequentially or in some sort of a structure.
  • Build a rapport with the audience. An audience is likely to listen to a speaker who cares to share some personal information with them. There is a better connection if the audience feels that the speaker “is just like them.”
  • Build humour into the talk. This makes the atmosphere relaxed and comfortable.
  • Answer questions adeptly. This does not imply that the speaker must know the answer to all the questions, but the speaker should be able to manage and control the audience through powerful use of ethos and logos. Ethos is the use of an appeal to credibility by the speaker. Logos, on the other hand, is the use of logical appeal in an argument.
  • Use linguistic tools. Create abbreviations and short forms of the key messages so that it is easier for the audience to remember them. Repeat messages frequently to reinforce the important points.
  • Use ample illustrations, examples, and graphics to appeal to all audience types—auditory, visual, and verbal.
COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN: SEVEN CARDINAL MISTAKES MANAGERS MAKE

Despite the best of intentions, management communications can be misinterpreted. There are numerous ways in which managers can commit mistakes as far as communication is concerned.

Communicating Without Adequate Preparation

Speaking without thinking about the consequences does not pay off in professional communication. For instance, before announcing a controversial decision to employees, managers should take into account the sensitivities of the affected parties. This will prevent malicious gossip, planned resistance, and office manipulation, which are common when employees are taken by surprise. Even presentations, proposals, and e-mails written without proper preparation can land managers in trouble. It is worthwhile to individually consult pressure groups, opinion leaders, and office groups on a one-on-one basis before making any decisive commitments. It is also a good idea to convey empathy and concern using one's tone, voice, and body language appropriately.

Underestimating the Intelligence of the Audience

Many managers fail to take employees into confidence by citing the popular refrain, “they will not understand.” This is a mistake. The audience—supervisors or subordinates—are likely to be knowledgeable about many factors and deserve to know the rationale behind the company's strategic plans.

Using Inappropriate Channels of Communication

Sometimes, managers use e-mails to convey messages best conveyed in a face-to-face conversation. Deplorably, many times, managers publicly deride an employee when a personal putdown would have been enough. These so-called small blunders have the potential to trigger great unrest. Generally speaking, potentially emotional issues are best dealt with face to face, while more professional issues can be handled via electronic channels. Managers may also make the mistake of sending verbal information to an employee who essentially prefers the face-to-face mode and vice versa. Knowing the communication channel preferences of employees can bridge gaps between managers and subordinates.

Believing that Words Speak Louder than Actions

Lofty appeals and ambitious promises hold true when employees feel that the manager “walks the talk.” For example, talking of equality but drinking tea/coffee in a porcelain cup as opposed to the paper cups used by employees, gives the impression that status and position do matter. Therefore, before communicating any standards of behaviour, rules, regulations, or beliefs, it is important for managers to take a long hard look in the mirror. The culture perpetrated by managers should reflect the goals set by the organization.

Listening Only to Good News

As managers go higher up the corporate ladder, they somehow surround themselves with people who create deliberate noise in the information processing chain. As a result, managers may fall prey to the good-news-only syndrome, where they disregard bad news and react negatively to bearers of such news. It is often observed that bad news is softened as it moves up the hierarchy and magnified as it travels down. Effective managers are open to receiving bad news and seek to solve the issue, instead of brushing it under the carpet. Effective managers deal with rumours and the grapevine head-on and talk to others directly in plain language.

Playing Guessing Games with Employees

Some managers rarely seem to give complete information to their employees. They appear to revel in keeping their employees in a state of suspense. In the guise of “testing” the subordinate's skill at “discovering information,” managers try to exercise power and control over subordinates. This can boomerang in the form of incomplete reports, unprofessional presentations, and improper research. An effective manager learns to harness the skills of the subordinate to match their own for a productive solution.

Rarely Talking to Employees

Some managers do not speak at all with their employees. Cocooned in their plush air-conditioned chambers, they fail to tune in to the needs of their employees—the salespeople, field staff, receptionists, factory supervisors, and new recruits. They neither praise nor reprimand. They distance themselves from the very people who work for them, believing that the middle and supervisory management will take care of their needs. In this scenario, it may happen that employees lose their vision and motivation with respect to their work. Effective managers are also leaders and should have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Information Bytes 1.2

Many organizations have not reacted very kindly towards the two most popular social media sites: Twitter and Facebook. According to them, employees waste time on Twitter, Facebook, and Orkut. Many have even barred them from the workplace.

The popular view is that organizations can gain from this vast resource and should make it a preferred mode of communication. According to many employees, these social networking sites serve as effective agents of internal communications. Over time, the role of these social networking sites has changed substantially from sharing personal thoughts and brief updates to informative bulletins.

Organizations must recognize this and adapt to the new world, which is led by technology. Compatible across all platforms and interfaces, most social networking sites, including Twitter, afford a lot of flexibility. Almost anybody can access them, read them, post comments, and respond on these sites.

COMMUNICATION BARRIERS AND TECHNOLOGY

Barriers to communication in the workplace are gradually being overcome in several organizations, thanks to effective use of social media. The “Social Media in the Enterprise”11 conference held in March 2010 focused on how various organizations use social media to their advantage. Different organizations use social media in different ways. Some feel that the main obstacles to social media are generally the people concerned while others felt that it was a challenge to get the HR and IT departments to communicate efficiently in order to effectively implement social media within an organization. However, others feel that the one major benefit of implementing social media within a company is that is helps move the internal, “water cooler conversations” into the public arena and brings together people from different departments. The British supermarket chain Asda, for example, has a social media system called the Green Room, where the employees, among other things, share information about the charity work they are doing. Certain speakers in this conference, however, described the rising cost of social media (Sonia Carter from Axa, U.K., described how the first version of a particular social media platform was free and took six weeks to implement, while the next version cost the company GBP 500,000 and took twelve months to fully swing into action) as one of the major drawbacks. A publicly accessible social media site of a company also needs to be closely monitored and controlled so that important data doesn't find its way into the wrong hands.

FACILITATING EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

There are many factors that facilitate effective communication. They are discussed in this section.

Develop a Genuine Desire to Communicate

The desire to communicate is the first step in being effective. The desire to connect with another human being is the bond that facilitates clear expression perhaps more than anything else. A genuine effort to understand another person goes a long way in enhancing the quality of interaction.

Understand Oneself and Others

The key to effective communication is, first and foremost, an understanding of oneself and then, an understanding of others. When we have fully reflected on our own communication style, we can adequately revise and respond to others. The first step in this direction can be to prepare an inventory of one's biases and prejudices.

Encourage an Open Climate

In most situations, managers overestimate their capacity to communicate and underestimate the extent of positional authority that prevents most employees from voicing their concerns. Most managers are averse to listening to bad news (unplanned expenditure, sanctioning leave, greater budget outlays, sales decline, and the like). They may avoid interaction, change the subject, tell employees clearly that they would not like to listen to such things, and so on. This inhibits the flow of unpleasant yet important communication.

In turn, employees may at times feel discouraged to present constructive ideas for improvement of processes—simply out of fear of reprimand or ridicule. A good example is that of Sheryl Sanders, currently chief operating officer of Facebook. When she worked at Google, she was responsible for the company's automated system. She made a costly mistake once, and informed the founder of Google, Larry Page, telling him how bad she felt about the million-dollar loss. Sheryl recalls that Page accepted her apology and then went on to say that he was quite glad that she had made the mistake … and that the mistake was a good indicator of the risks Google was taking in business. As Sheryl said later, few CEOs actually walked the talk and Google's was one of them.12

Develop Strong Internal Communications

Internal communications or employee communications refer to the information channels made available to the employees of a firm. These channels are used to disseminate information to employees about current and future activities of the firm, awards and recognition, and plans concerning the company. It also allows for some form of feedback from employees regarding these issues. An informed and motivated workforce is crucial for a healthy organization. Companies like Google, Starbucks, Unilever, and Mastek, which employ good internal communications systems prove that success really starts from within.

Internal communications, however, has some drawbacks. They include:

  • Ignoring the merits of face-to-face communication: Sophisticated tools and technologies have made organizations too dependent on technology; companies sometimes fail to realize that face-to-face communication and meetings are still the most personal form of communication.
  • Cascading communication: In a global environment, it is impossible to communicate face to face with employees all the time; hence information “cascades” through successive management levels. This leaves the message at the mercy of the senders, who may not all be skilled in the art of communication. This leads to message distortion, confusion, and conflict.

Communication Bytes 1.3

Mastek was the first IT company to introduce the idea of a virtual bench. It was the most drastic action taken so far by this 27-year-old company. Due to the sensitive nature of the action, a lot of brainstorming was done and everything was planned in great detail. Employees who were put on the virtual bench had the option of leaving it and resigning from the company after receiving a severance pay.

However, after its implementation, a staggering 85 per cent opted to remain in the company. All the 425 affected employees were informed of this decision through a joint presentation, which stressed how they were still precious resources for the company. They were also informed about the kind of training they would receive. As everything was there in written form, there was little chance of miscommunication. The presentation came with a letter including detailed legal implications and frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the measure they had taken. This document included mentors who could be contacted. Doctors and counsellors were also made readily available in case of emergencies.

 

Source: Based on N. Shivapriya, “HR Heads Look to Control Costs Without Layoffs,” The Economic Times (May 3, 2009), available at <http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2009-05-03/news/28457262_1_virtual-bench-salary-cuts-employees>, accessed on January 5, 2011.

  • Disintegrated communication: Often tools are just used to inform employees about events and schemes, with little or no follow-up. Thus, communication appears to be one-shot event rather than a coherent whole or a part of a strategy.
  • Too focused on quantitative surveys that are time-consuming and yield little: It is recommended that managers not rely overly on surveys, and “walk the talk” instead. A great deal of information can be obtained by simply walking outside one's cubicle, sitting with employees in the cafeteria, or talking with them on the telephone.

The business leader has to tear down fences, punish internal politics, reward cooperation, and encourage sharing of ideas if internal communications are to improve. Creating an open organizational climate to support employee concerns and objectives might be a good way to improve internal communications. It is a good idea to let everyone in the organization know what others are doing. Pasting the objectives of all the teams working on various projects on the intranet or the dashboard reporting system might be helpful as well. Organizing cross-functional teams for projects can also help facilitate internal communications. Team leaders must engage the teams in contests, quizzes, club activities, and other extracurricular activities, and create a suitable provision for incubation of ideas.

Encourage “hot desking.” Hot desking is the practice of not providing desks to employees, specifically the sales staff. They can take a seat anywhere within a conference room. This can prevent a silo mentality, that is, the practice of owning or possessing something in an unreasonable manner and failing to share it.

COMMUNICATION STRATEGY

There are two sides to strategy in communications. In the first instance, there is the organization's strategy: what it hopes to achieve and how it plans to go about achieving it. That strategy will be supported, and to some extent, delivered through effective internal communications.

In this context internal communications can help on several different levels:

  • Tell: Informing people of the direction taken (non-negotiable).
  • Sell: This is done while anticipating some form of backlash, and it requires some amount of persuasion.
  • Consult: Soliciting specific areas of input to the decision-making process.
  • Involve: Seeking varying degrees of involvement and co-creation.

Exhibit 1.6 explains the communication process diagrammatically.

Second, and more important, internal communications needs a strategy of its own. It should be positioned as more than a simple plan of tactical interventions in support of business activities.

 

Exhibit 1.6 A Model of Strategic Communication

  • Audience/Market: What does the organization know about the information needs of its audience/market? How should its audience/market be segmented?(Audience refers to the employees and market refers to clients, customers, suppliers, and, in essence, all the people external to the organization.)
  • Message: What is the organization's message trying to achieve? In what tone should it be conveyed? Message can be informational, persuasive, and motivational.
  • Media: Which channels work best for the different audience segments? How will they maximize reach and facilitate action? Are there clear guidelines for each? Media includes social media and other channels of internal communications; media also means the press and other mass media.
  • Measurement: Are there clearly defined success criteria for the quality of communication? What are the leading and lagging measures?

Numerous corporate organizations have effective communication strategies. Here is an example: A leading mobile company has an unwritten rule that prevents employees from eating lunch at their desks or going out for a meal. They are generally asked to eat at the in-house, inexpensive cafeterias. This leads to greater intermingling of employees outside their own department. This has been found to be helpful in sharing ideas and understanding issues.13

In 2004, the corporate communications department of a multinational distribution company wanted to improve its internal communications. It authorized Pulse Check, a survey feature launched by The Booth Company, to devise and manage a series of quarterly “pulse surveys.” The pulse surveys allowed them to gauge employee attitudes towards the new corporate brand strategy and provide feedback to help them improve internal communications. The content was divided into five areas: Strategy, Performance, You and the Company, Leadership, and Communication. The data provided the corporate communications department with a clearer picture of how employees want internal communications to work.14

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has something called the Ultimatix—an online system that helps connect employees to one another on a daily basis. The company has also collated all the programmes that helps it communicate internally within the organization. According to the Chief Executive Officer of the company, the senior management always tries to meet as many employees as possible and the hierarchy within the organization is never a hindrance in this case. Effective internal communications also manages to take away the stress from the hectic schedules most TCS employees have to maintain. Most of the employees of this company are in their late twenties and the programmes are often geared towards their satisfaction. Last year, with an extremely low employee attrition rate of 3 per cent, TCS proved that its internal communication system was working effectively.15

TCS also employs other effective communication strategies like the open-door policy in which any employee can approach the CEO or the top management with work-related problems. Open-house sessions allow employees at all levels to meet and discuss various work-related issues. Employees can also take part in one-on-one sessions with the senior management. These sessions are helpful in providing mentorship, as well as understanding real-life issues that workers might face at the office. The queries and discussions are formally recorded and followed up.

Companies like Infosys have effective in-house communication strategies as well. There, InSync is the internal communications programme focused on keeping Infosys employees abreast of the latest corporate and business developments, and equipping them to be a “brand ambassador” for the company. This programme combines a communication portal with workshops, monthly newsletters, articles, daily cartoons, and brainteasers to synchronize each employee with the organization.

Companies like Wipro have various internal communications channels in order to connect with its employees. For example, Channel W is an employee portal at Wipro that creates a de facto “Wipro community” by allowing employees to interact with each other and disseminate information on things they most cherish. The intranet ensures that the entire organization is wired in and that there is meaningful exchange of information and views across domains. Key sections of Channel W encourage employee participation and communication through bulletin boards and chat rooms.

W10 is a dipstick survey with ten questions, which checks the satisfaction level on issues affecting company stability, security issues, and supervisory effectiveness in Wipro. Feedback given by employees is shared with the top management through scorecards in this system. These W10 scores then trigger managers or supervisors to meet their teams and resolve issues that create dissatisfaction in the workplace.

Wipro also conducts employee satisfaction surveys every two years. Employees are encouraged to comment on and rank the organization on certain areas or satisfaction drivers. The top management then prepares a timely action plan to address the areas of concern. Task forces are created to focus on areas that can be improved.

Wipro believes that team feedback is an important parameter of leadership development as well as team cohesiveness. A “skip level meeting” is, therefore, rather popular. These are formal team feedback sessions facilitated by HR as well as the supervisor's supervisor. This is an institutionalized process in Wipro and managers see great merit in it as they get feedback from the team. Consequently, managers can make changes in the middle of an ongoing project in order to improve effectiveness at work.16

SUMMARY

 

  • Technological advancements, diversity, globalization of business, growth in legal issues, and time constraints have made communication a key skill in the knowledge economy.
  • Communication is rather complex. This is because everyone has their particular mental frames that guide their speech. Sensitivity to the “otherness” of others improves communication considerably.
  • Barriers to communication can be resolved by knowing what, how, when, and where to communicate.
  • First impressions are usually based on the visual impact, followed by the verbal impact. It is thus important to control one's body language and build a positive perception about oneself.
  • Internal communications plays a key role in organizational communication systems by regulating the flow of information through communication media. New media are being harnessed to create links between employees.
  • The proposed model of effective communication strategy at the workplace emphasizes “measurement” among other factors. Communication initiatives must be measurable with a proper “audit.” This is bound to give them the respectability they deserve.
ASSESS YOUR KNOWLEDGE
  1. Describe the process of communication. Do you think that the process has undergone a radical transformation with the introduction of newer forms of communication?
  2. In what way can mental barriers hinder communication?
  3. How do you distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication? Do you agree with the statement that face-to-face communication has declined over the years? Give reasons for your view.
  4. Distinguish between internal and external communication in an organization.
  5. What are the benefits of internal communications? How has Google crafted its internal communications strategy?
  6. What are the benefits of keeping the lines of communication open in an organization?
  7. Write short notes on the following:
    • The human moment at work
    • Blogs as tools for organizational communications
    • Mental filters
    • How to make others listen to you
USE YOUR KNOWLEDGE
  1. Read the following situation and answer the question that follows.

    Companies have fired thousands of employees in the recent economic downturn. A few years ago, RadioShack Corporation sent e-mails to approximately 400 of its employees, informing them that they had lost their jobs. It is part of the culture of certain organizations to communicate important messages through e-mails.

    As the HR manager at RadioShack, write a one-page memo to persuade the CEO to adopt a more suitable and less dehumanizing strategy for notifying employees that they have been let go.

  2. Google, the popular Internet search engine, has taken the rules of grammar a step further. As hurried e-mails and instant messages become more commonplace, Google is doing its best to encourage clear and effective communication on the Web through proper grammar and spelling. Its AdWords division, which is responsible for advertisements appearing alongside search results, insists on standard English and correct spelling for any ads placed on the side. Google disallows the use of unjustified superlatives, such as “best” or “tastiest” and excessive punctuation such as multiple exclamation points. The division's director insists on these editorial guidelines to ensure clear, effective, and to-the-point communication between advertisers and viewers.

    As the director of the AdWords division of Google, you have received many e-mails from advertising copywriters questioning why Google has not accepted their submissions. Write an e-mail that will explain why these ads are not being accepted. In your e-mail, address Google's intent to keep the message clear and effective. As you evaluate your draft, consider the subject line, the main content, and the letter's grammar. You would also like advertisers to continue advertising with Google and, as such, recommend that they work with Google's editors to develop easy-to-follow standards for submissions.

  3. Many times recruiters ask typical questions that aim to understand the candidate beyond carefully scripted responses. As a savvy recruiter, evaluate the responses to the following interview questions as shown in Exhibit 1.7. The recruiter's evaluation criteria include seeing whether the candidate is a good fit for the company, whether he or she is oriented towards teamwork and has an enterprising nature, and whether the potential recruit has a responsible attitude and makes intelligent choices.
  4. Please read the scenario given here. The perspectives of each participant in the communication process have been detailed. After you have read the case, answer the questions that follow.
    • Background: According to a poll funded by Levi Strauss & Co., more than half of all white-collar workers can now dress casually at work. This trend reflects larger changes in work patterns. The workplace is more flexible and more people now work at home or have flexible hours. Even John Molloy, the guru of the 1980s’ “dress for success” movement, now works with befuddled executives, teaching them what to wear in a casual world.
    • The team leader's perspective: Dressing casually in professional places seems to be an increasingly common phenomenon. The COO of the accounting firm you work for has written to you to enforce “limited dress-downs,” as he calls it. In his e-mail, the COO has pointed out the “frivolous” dressing style of some employees. You feel that the COO is being overly “stuffy.” You do not find anything objectionable in the manner in which your team members dress. You feel that they appear much more relaxed now and willing to put in longer hours of work. The office atmosphere lightens, and one does gets a break from monotony. Yes, you do admit that Sujoy was looking a little scruffy during the presentation but it's the end result that matters, doesn't it? The presentation was a success.

      You feel that the firm should allow its employees dress-down options, ideally at all times. However, if that is not acceptable (though you don't see why it shouldn't be), then it should be permissible for at least one or two days in a week. Why not? Even your team members have raised objections to the e-mail sent by the COO. (By the way, you're eager to bring the Gucci briefcase you bought the other day to the office!) You're on the way to meet the COO to sort out the issue. He is a nice person and you respect him for his knowledge and credibility.

    • The COO's perspective: You are the COO of Eastman and Associates, a sedate, well-established, and highly respected accountancy firm. You are concerned about the dwindling professionalism in your company. This is especially in relation to the casual dressing style you are seeing at the workplace. If you had your way, you would prefer the traditional style of dressing. You express your concerns to various team heads and urge them to either be formally attired or establish some sort of a written dress code. Your worry is that an increase of casual wear in office might look unprofessional, encourage sloppy work, and in general promote “fooling around.” Moreover, you are concerned about what people might wear. Is a written code necessary if a casual dress policy is allowed? Why, the other day you were amazed to see Sujoy dressed so casually for an important presentation! It's a wonder you clinched the deal, because the client gave you quite a lot of negative feedback about Sujoy. You had a tough time convincing your client. One of the team heads, Bharat, has asked to see you. Bharat may have some radical views but he is an asset to your company. Moreover, he attended the same college you did.

      Taking a cue from the communication models discussed in the chapter, analyse the communication between the COO and the team leader as presented in this case. Specifically, highlight the role of perceptions and how one can overcome them. Also write a dialogue representing both the roles. You are free to add more information where it is necessary.

 

Exhibit 1.7

Question Response
Give me an example of a time when you had a conflict with a team member. Our leader asked me to handle all external correspondence for the team. I did it, but felt that correspondence was a waste of my time
Tell me how you solved a problem that was impeding your project? One of the engineers in my team was not pulling his weight and we were closing in on a deadline. So I took on some of his work.
What's the one thing you would like to change in your current position? My job as a marketing executive has become mundane. I would like the responsibility of managing people.
I am interviewing 120 people for two jobs. Why should I hire you? I represent one of the best management schools in the country. I feel that I am the best in this area. With four years of experience in this industry and all the necessary qualifications, I can offer you something unique, that no other candidate can.
Why are your grades so low in this subject? I did not really like this subject. I am far more interested in accounts and finance, where you can see I have high scores.
Show me some samples of your writing. I am sorry. I do not have writing samples. I did not know that these were required for the interview.
What have you read recently? Any movies that you have seen recently? I do not have the time to read. However I saw the Hindi movie “Apna Sapna Money Money” and liked it immensely.
WEB-BASED EXERCISES
  1. Visit http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/body-speaks.htm. Explain the differences in body language across countries.
  2. Visit http://eqi.org/summary.htm. What does the author mean by “being emotionally literate”? What kind of semantics are used when one uses language that is high on emotional intelligence?
FURTHER READING
  • A. Zaremba, “Management in a New Key: Communication Networks,” Industrial Management (1989) 31: 6–11.
  • Albert Mehrabian and Morton Wiener, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1967) 6.
  • Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, “Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels,” Journal of Consulting Psychology (1967) 31.
  • G. De Mare, “Communicating: The Key to Establishing Good Working Relationships” Price Waterhouse Review (1989) 33: 30–37.
  • Gillian Butler and Tony Hope, Managing Your Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • J. Pearson, Interpersonal Communication (Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1983).
  • K. Davis, “Management Communication and the Grapevine,” Harvard Business Review (1953).
  • K. Davis, “Where Did that Rumor Come From?” Fortune (August 1979).
  • Peter Andersen, Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions, 2nd edition (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2007).
  • Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton &; Company, 1997).
  • Suzanne Crampton, “The Informal Communication Network: Factors Influencing Grapevine Activity,” Public Personnel Management (December 1998).
  • Thomas E. Harris and Mark D. Nelson, Applied Organizational Communication: Theory and Practice in a Global Environment, 3rd edition (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2008).