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.