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The Myth Of The Communication "Problem"

by Tom Terez

People who put the blame on communication breakdowns for anything and everything that goes wrong in the workplace are very often missing the mark. These humorous imaginary conversations will help you understand why, and the serious suggestions that follow will put you back on track.

Q. One of my colleagues likes to say that every workplace problem is ultimately a communication problem. Is there any truth to that? What's your take on this?

A. First of all, let's acknowledge that many people cite "communication problems" as the source of any and every workplace woe.

Here's a transcript from an actual workplace conversation that perfectly illustrates this phenomenon:


(At a nuclear power-generating facility)

BOB: Oh no, I think the core is starting to melt down!

CHRIS: A meltdown? Oh, come on, don't be ridiculous.

BOB: No, really! We're registering a 9.6 on the meltdown gauge, and...and...look, my fingers are starting to turn fluorescent green!

CHRIS (chuckling): That may seem to be the case, but what we really have here is your garden-variety communication problem.

BOB (as a siren begins to wail): Do you really think so?

CHRIS: Absolutely. Let's form a Communication Committee and schedule a workshop on how to be better communicators. (Pause.) Will someone turn off that damn siren?!

In reality, the typical communication breakdown tends to be a symptom of a problem—and by no means a root cause. There's a world of difference between the two.

For a case in point, let's turn to the history books.


(On the H.M.S. Titanic, at that fateful moment)

FRANTIC LOOKOUT: Iceberg! Iceberg! I see an iceberg! I also see Leonardo DiCaprio, but I don't care, because there's this huge iceberg! And we're heading straight into it!

THE CAPTAIN (on the bridge, to the Executive Officer): Did you hear something?

EXECUTIVE OFFICER: Yeah...something about...Leonardo DiCaprio, I think.

THE CAPTAIN: Could he really be on board?! Hey, let's leave the bridge for an hour or so and find our star passenger. I'd love to get an autograph!

EXECUTIVE OFFICER (quickly exiting the bridge, with the Captain): Great idea!


Did the Titanic go down because of a communication breakdown? Of course not.It all happened because Leonard DiCaprio was cavorting on deck when he should have been warmly tucked in his bunk getting a decent night of sleep.

Let that be a lesson to all Hollywood megastars who plan to take cruises near the Arctic Circle.

Of course, when people see every workplace problem as a communication problem, they want every solution to be about—you guessed it: communication.

"What's that, people are coming in late? Let's send out a memo and state the policy."

"Accidents are up on that machine? Get going on a written procedure."

"Employees are unclear on their benefits? Let's have a staff meeting and make it clear once and for all."

That's right, we're talking about the big three communication "solutions": memos, written procedures, and staff meetings.

The word memorandum comes from the Latin memo for "throw" and randum for "away". Yet few things have had more staying power in organizations than the written memo.

In fact, archeologists report that development of the written word likely had its genesis in the following conversation, which was recorded using a bulky prehistoric tape recorder:

How It All Started

CHIEF CAVEMAN: Are you telling me that people are not resharpening their flints, even though we have a rule saying they have to do it?

UNDERLING CAVEMAN: That's right. We had a heck of a time yesterday sawing through those carcasses.

CHIEF: Well, get some shale, and carve out a written memo to everyone. Keep it short and simple: "Flints are to be resharpened twice a day, by order of the Chief."

UNDERLING: Written? Memo? But Chief, we don't even have an alphabet. We're still trying to figure out that fire thing.

CHIEF: Go invent one, or I'll bash your head in with this large tape recorder. I want 20 clean copies of that memo by sundown!

Now that I've amused and perhaps infuriated the archeological community, let me provide some serious ideas for dealing with this issue:

Serious Solutions

1. When a workplace problem surfaces, conduct a deep-down analysis to uncover root causes. There are fishbone diagrams, tree diagrams, and other tools that can help you in this process. Ideally, bring together a team of colleagues for this cause analysis. More brainpower at the table will translate into deeper discoveries.

2. Specifically, if you find yourself face to face with a "communication problem", resist the urge to jump to a communication solution. Get busy with your colleagues and start peeling back the layers to understand why the situation is occurring. Keep peeling: ask why, why, why. Only when you know the underlying cause can you have an intelligent conversation on how to respond. Expect to find that this deep-down cause has very little to do with communication.

3. Be on the lookout for others who are resorting to communication "solutions" that don't address root causes. Use your best diplomatic skills to create a safe environment where traditionalists can experiment with new approaches.

4. Recognize that memos, written procedures, staff meetings, and other forms of communication remain important to the health of the workplace. The trick is to use them only when they're truly necessary—and to ensure that they add substantial value.

For instance, most organizations are afflicted with rampant I-talk-you-listen staff meetings. Put those aside for a moment and envision something different.

Awesome worker get-togethers are possible—not once, not twice, but all the time. Huddle with colleagues to imagine it, plan it, and make it happen.

Copyright © 2002 by Tom Terez Workplace Solutions Inc.

Tom Terez is a speaker, workshop leader, and author of 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace. Tom's website: Tom Terez Workplace Solutions, is filled with tools for building a great work environment. Write to or call 614-571-9529.


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