‘Lack of communication’ – a euphemism for corporate conflict

Whenever I hear the phrase ‘lack of communication’ my bullshit detector kicks in.

So often, corporate failures and management problems are blamed on lack of communication. The implication is that, if we had all just talked to each other more, failure could have been averted. It’s a palatable way of explaining away any number of cock-ups. ‘Lack of communication,’ though, is almost always a euphemism for something else – often some form of conflict.

If people don’t talk to each other, or they misunderstand each other’s messages, there is usually an underlying reason. Most obviously, junior staff don’t speak up because they are scared. Whatever the CEO might say about promoting an open and honest culture, if the last person who spoke out was demoted and sent to run the Mansfield branch, others will think twice before questioning senior management decisions.

In many organisations, managers actively avoid communicating by endlessly word-smithing documents into ‘acceptable language’, thereby blurring or burying the important messages. Why do they do this? Because anything in ‘unacceptable language’ will upset the boss. What’s worse? Upsetting the boss or delivering a mealy-mouthed anodyne presentation? No contest really. As Malcolm Gladwell said, sometimes people will literally crash into mountains before they break group norms with language that might be deemed inappropriate.

In management teams, lack of communication is often a symptom of conflict between the team members. People don’t hear each other because they don’t want to. I’ve seen highly intelligent people affect not to understand something because they didn’t like it. The person making the suggestion would then try to explain it in a different way. Completely futile, of course, because those on the receiving end were determined not to understand him come what may.

So when I read this article in the Harvard Business Review about lack of communication being The Silent Killer of Big Companies I was naturally sceptical. OK, I’m prepared to accept that it might have played some role in Nokia’s troubles, though I suspect that, even here, deeper cultural issues were at play. But blaming Enron’s demise on lack of communication is just preposterous. Criticising its management for not “communicating appropriate values” and not “maintaining openness to signs of problems” makes what happened at Enron sound like absent-minded negligence rather than deliberate fraud. The management didn’t forget to do any of this stuff. They deliberately ignored and sidelined those people who did try to communicate. Enron crashed because its leaders were amoral and greedy, not because they forgot to communicate.

Here’s another interesting case closer to home. We are being asked to believe the argument between Rio Ferdinand and Alex Ferguson was all down to a communication problem. Now that’s a bit odd because, only recently, Ferdinand was said to be furious about the way the game’s hierarchy has dealt with racism and his boss was furious back, saying the player would be “dealt with”. So very public conflict between an angry employee and manager determined to assert his authority was dismissed a week or so later as a simple breakdown in communication. It’s so much less threatening isn’t it? Everyone can pretend there wasn’t really a row, save face and carry on as if nothing serious had happened.

This sort of thing happens in companies all the time. Even serious conflicts can be papered over with the ‘lack of communication’ tag. Of course, the underlying problems don’t go away. They just sit and fester waiting to resurface.

So next time you hear a disagreement, a project failure or a corporate blunder being explained away as ‘lack of communication’ it’s probably a smokescreen. Ask yourself the question, ‘What is the problem we are avoiding discussing by explaining it away with ‘lack of communication’?

The phrase is PC corporate-speak for suppressed aggro. Whenever you hear it used, there is almost certainly something else going on.

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9 Responses to ‘Lack of communication’ – a euphemism for corporate conflict

  1. Pingback: ‘Lack of communication’ – a euphemism for corporate conflict - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Rick,

    Great insight that “lack of communication” can be a cover for other issues, but is a convenient way of explaining away publicly deeper causes of concern within a firm. I am not sure, however, that this is always the case. One of my first Treasury Cafe blog posts “back in the day” (i.e. over a year ago) argued that at firms that a large enough there is always going to be a certain amount of “somebody isn’t talking to somebody” going on due to the exponential difficulty of coordinating across more and more functions and disciplines, such that correcting for this becomes equivalent to “squeezing a balloon”.

    Here is the link if you are interested (no ads, redirects, or spam on that site):

    http://treasurycafe.blogspot.com/2011/08/organizational-balloons.html

    Thanks!

    Dave W.

  3. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke 1967

  4. Needs2cash says:

    Korean Air also tapped into the information made available from the data being collected by the crash recorders after each flight instead of waiting for their planes to crash! Just one example of predictive information helping organizations act to prevent failures.

    Leaders understanding their organizations as systems should inform decision makers in time to make the right decision. This includes listening to employees so the system can be improved.

    Hence a failure to communicate is really leadership’s failure to ensure their organization works as a system to help everyone to discuss and understand the requirements. Imagine enabling everyone to demand the resources they need before they promise to fulfill the organization’s objectives and other requirements.

    Rarely do we hear leaders taking the blame for the failure of their system. Instead they may point a finger at a hapless employee or spread the blame by talking about a failure to communicate.

  5. Metatone says:

    Not much to say beyond “I agree” and coincidentally someone played me a good TED talk related to this just yesterday: http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree.html

  6. I think we are seeing evidence of this very issue played out at the BBC right now. It wasn’t ‘a lack of communication’ that stopped junior staff flagging concerns about Jimmy Savile in the 60s and 70s, nor was it the cause for the decision to pull the Newsnight exposé more recently… it was internal conflict, fear and poor decision making. Good call as ever, Mr Rick- it’s a poor excuse for other, bigger issues in a team.

  7. Personally, my insight from personal experience is that most project issues are caused by managers who either don’t know what they want or they don’t know how to adequately express what they want.

    We don’t necessarily need more communications but we certainly need higher quality communication.

  8. Years ago I had a client who asked me to look at ways they could improve communications with their staff. After spending some time with various people in the organisation my report back was..

    “The last thing you need to do right now is improve and clarify your communications. You really hate most of the people who work for you and hold them in contempt. The main reason why most of them are still working for you is that they don’t know that. Unless you want most of them to leave in the next few months, I suggest we start with why do you think your staff are all idiots, fools and morons and work on from that……..”

    It will come as no surprise to many people that this was an organisation where order, counter- order and confusion were the order of the day as a tiny group of people tried to manage a large business in the same way they had managed a small one.

    Once we sorted out what the board were doing the workforce suddenly got a great deal smarter and more motivated . It turned out once we knew what was important, it was much easier to communicate around that. And the few dangerous managers who were simply there to suit themselves and bully others were dis-empowered and decided to go and prey on someone else’s organisation.

  9. Pingback: Retrospectives, Part 2: In a Sentimental Mood | Edge of Chaos | Agile Development Blog

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