August 19

A leader’s guide to improving communication at your company

Introduction

You may be a CEO, a department head or a team lead. Somehow you have concluded that communication on your team or at your company overall has to improve. The subject most likely came up after an embarrassing failure which could have been avoided if only one person had let another person know something very important.

Yet “improving communication” turned out to be easier said than done. Asking people to “please, communicate more and better” only had a temporary and superficial effect. The first week they diligently complied, demonstratively spending hours talking about who-knows-what. A couple new meetings were set up. Then little by little those changes started slipping away. Two months later the two new meetings were eventually cancelled, there being nothing to discuss, and everything returned to where it was.

The puzzling part is that you have followed all the usual recommendations. This weekly All-Hands meeting where you share news with everyone? You are doing all the talking, and after an hour people barely remember the main point. Better technology? You’ve tried switching to another instant messaging platform. Some folks indeed gathered to discuss how terrible the new platform was. Empathy training? You have tried that too! Tests show that most people at your company are emotionally aware; they just won’t communicate effectively. No matter what you try, you keep encountering embarrassing situations with teammates not being on the same page about a mission-critical issue.

Disclaimer: while the author does have some leadership experience and has worked at tech companies of all sizes, the intended audience are people with vastly more leadership experience than the author. This guide is not of the kind  “I did it this way many times and it worked; repeat after me.” Rather it introduces an analytical framework for approaching the problem. Recommendations based on experience are intertwined with extrapolations from other fields of knowledge. What distinguishes the author from most other writers on the subject is the intellectual honesty and desire to understand true patterns underlying human communication. Early feedback has been encouraging. However, take those ideas critically, test them and if possible, report back what you think. The guide will be eventually updated to incorporate feedback from the readers.

What exactly are you trying to improve?

C’mon, haven’t I told you? Communication at my company.

If your efforts are not paying off, you will have to get more specific with your desired outcome. Say, you want to improve personal communication with a relative. Would you want to communicate more frequently? More sincerely? Let go of negativity? Talk about a subject both of you have always avoided?

The dilemma gets more complicated with every additional person. If you have two relatives, A and B, would you want to have more frequent 3-way calls? More frequent calls with A and perhaps more sincere communication with B?

Let me guide you to help diagnose the problem. Pause and recall three most recent incidents that made you want to “improve communication”. 

Broadly, what aspect are you unhappy with?

  • Quantity. No conversations are taking place between certain people or those conversations do not leave enough time for the critical information to propagate.
  • Content. The conversations are taking place but are avoiding certain topics. For example, you would like the data science team to regularly share its findings with the marketing team and vice versa. The two teams do meet for lunch every day but chat about the weather and are wary of sharing anything substantial.
  • Transparency. Relevant people are present in relevant conversations on relevant topics, but it is common to withhold critical pieces of information. 
  • Tone. Conversations are taking place and relevant information is being shared, but the tone of those conversations is often unfriendly or unprofessional. This one is subjective.
  • Urgency. Critical issues are not escalated quickly enough. 
  • Understanding. People do not understand each other very well. Several stakeholders would seemingly reach an agreement during a meeting only to discover a few weeks later that the expectations are still not aligned. 
  • Agreement. Team members disagree on important decisions. While not technically a communication issue, it can be approached as one: many disagreements go away after everyone involved takes the time to understand everyone else.

There is tension between different aspects. If you have two teammates who dislike each other — there are probably more than two — you can force them to communicate more, but it will not be friendly or transparent. If you stress professional tone and behavior too much, emergencies may not get escalated: many people would rather let the whole company sink than risk personal embarrassment. And if you ever discourage disagreement, it is guaranteed to hurt transparency and reduce the overall communication quantity. 

The fantasy of perfect communication

Every leader intending to improve communication among their people has an image in mind: the Communication paradise. This is a state of your team in which communication is joyful and effortless. It is always timely, effective and efficient. Every conversation is meaningful and neither too long, nor too short. The company is a second home to every employee, your teammates are your family, and there is a deep feeling of psychological safety arising from belonging to this wonderful group of individuals.

This place does not exist.

You are never done “improving communication” at a company just as you are never done exercising. No matter how well you do today, tomorrow you will have to start all over again. Even if the company is a small startup and it is literally just you and your friends, sooner or later the circumstances will evolve and you will want more or better communication. While your friendship may survive, making any such change will be anything but joyful and effortless. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Idealized imagery does have its place and has proven its power to transform individuals and organizations over thousands of years. Visualizing “success” such as your company being listed on the first page of “Best companies to work for” or a news article about your stock being worth billions is highly effective. What is not effective is visualizing perfect communication. Unless your company’s business model involves entertainment, counseling or soft skills training, or unless leading a cheerful office is a personal dream of yours, effective communication is just means to an end. For all the talk that it is “critical to any business,” there are many roads to success. Clinging to a particular version of the Communication paradise will just make you closed to other alternatives.

Do not start with values

There is a cute little idea that companies have to identify and articulate their values such as Hospitality, Openness, Scientific Mindset and Customer-Centricity. Some advocates go as far as to say that no high performance is possible until the values have been articulated and broadly shared. According to this school of thought if communication at your company is less than perfect, you have to start by looking at your company’s values. Choose communication-promoting values such as Collaboration, Teamwork, Radical Honesty and Dialogue, put them on the wall and — voila! — peak performance ensues.

In the real world professed organizational values are reminiscent of George Orwell’s doublespeak. Exxon Mobil states in its guiding principles, “Above all other objectives, we are dedicated to running safe and environmentally responsible operations” (emphasis added), which sounds strange coming from a company with a track record of denying climate change. If the value of environmental responsibility truly takes precedence over enhancing shareholder value, why not become a non-profit and invest all available funds in climate research?!

Jobseekers and employees have just as little interest in corporate “values.” Sorry to disappoint you, but most people just want to make money. They do not particularly care if your company is customer-centric, playful or chocolate-covered. Imagine a candidate who passes all interview rounds and is given an offer. The candidate rejects the offer after checking out the “Our values” page and finding it unacceptable. It hardly ever happens. And while many people do prefer to work for a company that is doing something meaningful for the society, that is only a preference, just as you may prefer a company that offers free lunch and Friday office parties. Preferences are not deal-breakers.

Some proponents of the “values first” philosophy argue that elite sports teams use values-based coaching. Elite coaches know the right approach to managing a team, don’t they? Well, the author himself was a member of a team of three that back in 2004 won the World Champions title in what was the most prestigious programming competition in the world, the International Collegiate Programming Contest, and can attest that “values” were not a part of the training process. There were no explicit values guiding our team, no team philosophy, no principles, and yet we were the best in the world. Our coach Andrey Stankevich is now the most successful coach in the history of the competition with an astonishing track record of 7 (seven) World Champions titles. The competition has since grown to 3,200 universities from 110 countries with one billion press impressions of the World Finals in 2018.

Unless the work involves constant compromises affecting other people as is the case for trial judges, psychotherapists, firefighters, policemen, politicians, or unless the organization is taking a truly principled stand and will only ever employ people with certain beliefs, it is hard to see the value of “starting with values,” pun intended. When a true ethical dilemma eventually comes up, the “official” values written on the office wall will be ignored, and the choice will be made based on the personal beliefs of the individuals actually making it. 

If you truly care about a certain value, make it a policy. Freedom requires stable, predictable laws. Vague proclamations make it easy to target any individual for “not fitting in” and create a breeding ground for “toxic” managers. And before writing “Work hard play hard” on the office door remember the entrances to Nazi concentration camps saying “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

The system benefits from its current state

Instead of fantasizing about ideal organizations it would help to understand the forces shaping communication between real people in the real world. We are now turning to a counterintuitive concept that has originated in psychology. 

If a system keeps converging to a particular stable state, this state has to be providing some benefit to the system.

Put differently, if the current situation was easy to change, it would have already changed.

A classic example is addiction. Everyone knows that alcohol is a poison that can have life- threatening effects on one’s body. Nevertheless an alcoholic keeps drinking despite having this awareness. The explanation is that the perceived benefits of drinking outweigh the perceived costs, and as long as they do, treatment will not be effective. The benefits are usually described as the alcohol fulfilling a certain emotional need, somehow taking the place of self-confidence and self-worth. Another explanation is that quitting drinking is more painful than continuing, so the benefit becomes one of not suffering the pain of withdrawal.

Our “system” can be the entire company or a single team. If communication in that system is not improving in terms of quantity, content, or whatever aspect we are interested in, the system has to be benefiting from not changing.

There has to be a hidden benefit to poor communication.

Programmers often say that meetings are making them less productive. This gives us the first clue: additional time spent on more frequent conversations is time not spent doing actual work. 

Can the benefit of poor communication be that it maximizes individual productivity? This sounds reasonable until we realize that the “system” has no inherent tendency to prioritize productivity except insofar as it leads to rewards or punishments, actual or emotional. 

In fact, productivity can be rewarded and nonproductivity punished to such an extent so as to eliminate all other behaviors. For an engineer who must deliver by next week’s deadline, communication on any unrelated topic is an obstacle, no matter how much it may benefit the organization as a whole. You can ask them to “please, communicate,” but they know that you care infinitely more about that next week’s deadline.

A reasonable compromise would be for the engineer to spend, say, 90% of their time and energy on delivering before the deadline and 10% on communication. This is the usual solution and it is not particularly effective. Most engineers are simply not very strong communicators. They are just not good at it, they even find it mentally taxing. If you have ever heard that introverts need to “recharge their batteries” after a social outing, that is what we are talking about. Add to it the enormous mental cost of switching from the “programmer” mode to the “social” mode and back, and we see that this “compromise” amounts to a significant productivity hit with virtually no other value being created in the process. 

Even if this engineer wanted to become a better communicator, true change is rare. Behaving in new ways always takes a lot of energy and tends to feel weird and unusual and not rewarding at all. Just as a newly exercising couch potato may feel that “all this effort is wasted,” so a newly sociable engineer may feel that stepping out of their comfort zone was not a good idea. The difference is that your typical couch potato is under some pressure to change, whereas your typical introverted engineer is under some pressure to not change:  they need to keep delivering and are reluctant to allocate any of their limited resources towards a personal transformation. 

In summary, greater individual productivity and the rewards associated with it — promotions and salary raises — are the benefits of not increasing communication quantity. The obstacles to improving any other aspect of communication can be analyzed along similar lines. We now take a closer look at the most elusive aspect, communication transparency. How can there possibly be a benefit to withholding critical information?! Three case studies will help illustrate it.

Case studies: the downsides of transparency

Case Study 1. Only share your best ideas with the Executive Team.

Jenny is a data scientist at a product company. She works on a team with several other data scientists, but everyone’s performance is evaluated individually. Data science projects at this company take a very long time, but data scientists also contribute by coming up with valuable insights and sharing those with the marketing team, the finance team, and the executives. It is the quality and the quantity of those valuable insights that determine whether a particular data scientist comes across as a high or a low performer. 

Data scientists working on the same dataset can combine their insights and move forward much faster instead of everyone having to rediscover the same patterns. Developing a team mindset is absolutely crucial for a high-performing data science team. Jenny subscribed to this philosophy and every time she made an interesting discovery, it was shared with the rest of the data science team so as to advance the collective progress.

Patrick, another data scientist on the same team, had a different mindset. He would share some of his research with the team, but keep his best ideas secret until there was an opportunity to share them with the Executive Team. This way it was clear his work was his alone and he would get full credit for it.

Eventually Patrick came across as the highest-performing data scientist and was promoted to lead the rest of the team. Jenny was put on a performance improvement plan, but was allowed to stay. 

Case Study 2. Do not share your best ideas with anyone.  

Nina is an algorithmic trader at a hedge fund. Her trading algorithm is very profitable. Nina is reluctant to share information that would allow others to even use the algorithm in her absence, let alone understand its internals. While she did provide basic documentation, her code is intentionally sloppy and full of errors to ensure that only Nina can effectively operate it. 

Her compensation includes a “bonus” calculated as a certain percentage of the profits earned by her algorithm. It is understood that the moment the company can operate the algorithm without Nina’s help she will be likely let go, or at least that bonus will be decreased substantially. While “buying her out” seems like a reasonable solution, Nina cannot admit that she is, in fact, able to communicate the algorithm’s details and fix all the bugs, as that would amount to admitting fraud. Therefore the situation has reached an impasse.

Case Study 3. Employing someone as a favor.

Lack of transparency on nontechnical issues can also confer “benefits” to the system. Imagine a particular employee, Charles, who is outright incompetent. Improved communication would lead to everyone acknowledging and articulating this reality. However, Charles may have been employed as a personal favor done in exchange for some business opportunity that benefits the entire company. In this case the CEO would want to keep him on the payroll, and transparency in this matter would be undesirable. 


The characters in the three case studies are not motivated to communicate freely. Importantly, all of them are good, honest people. Patrick is a high performer and a savvy communicator. It is not his fault that the company is not a meritocracy. (However, ethically he would have to speak up against Jenny being put on a performance improvement plan.) Patrick has recognized and accepted this reality — now that he is a team lead, he can introduce more fairness. Nina invents exceptional trading algorithms, and she has as much of a right to maximally profit from those as does the firm employing her. Lastly, if employing Charles helps the entire company through a quid pro quo arrangement, his incompetence notwithstanding, it can be ethical for the CEO to keep him on the payroll. 

The intention of those case studies was to illustrate why so many interventions intending to improve corporate communication fail. We have focused on communication transparency, but similar case studies can be constructed about communication content, communication tone and so forth. No amount of logical arguments, flattery, and pleadings will help make a change if there are strong benefits associated with the existing communication patterns: the system will go right back to its current stable state. 

Keep this constraint in mind when considering the intervention types described in the following section. The fifth one, the Realignment Intervention, will be your last resort: if the system benefits from the status quo too strongly, you can try to directly influence people’s incentives in order to make the desired state of the system even more rewarding. 

The five types of interventions

Having discussed the many possible obstacles to change, what are some techniques you can use to actually effect a change in your team’s or company’s communication? One ad-hoc method was suggested in the introduction, namely, asking people to “please, communicate more and better.” This approach has its place, but is typically ineffective for the reasons already discussed: change is hard, people do not know how to make it, many of them have something to lose from a change, and most do not have much to gain. Instead we will now look at five types of interventions that may succeed where a simple request may fail.

Policy-Process-Procedure Intervention

 Interventions of this type are simple changes in the rules. If communication quantity is an issue, the most obvious solution is to schedule another weekly meeting. Lack of transparency? Try introducing a policy for recording all meetings and making recordings available to some or even all employees. If incidents are not being promptly reported, a detailed escalation procedure is a tool that has been embraced by countless organizations worldwide: set the rules to promote action and remove unnecessary doubt. 

Some people love rules and think that any change can be accomplished by using the “right” rulebook. However, not all rules are followed, and even when they are, the cure can be worse than the disease. One policy change will not “fix” all communication problems at your company, but telling people how to communicate can cause a lot of damage to the employee morale. Sometimes policy or process changes are of no use at all: rules are unlikely to help in a situation with two people hating each other and unwilling to work together. Unless, that is, your title is “Preschool Director” and you work in a kindergarten

Corporate communication can be formal or informal. Unlike interventions of the other four types, policy-process-procedure interventions only directly affect formal communication channels. The main use case for this type of intervention is creating time and space to allow relevant communication to take place. Additional meetings including people who were not previously in touch with each other can increase quantity. Structured agendas can introduce new communication content. For example, if three departments cannot coordinate a product launch, a weekly or even a daily meeting including one stakeholder from each department can be a solution. If a team is not aligned on daily tasks or is not learning from its mistakes, the Scrum methodology with its sprint plannings and retrospectives is something to consider. 

Charismatic leaders building deep relationships with their team members are often wary of formal tools, and for a good reason: managing with rules can make you come across as cold and impersonal. However, every tool has its use cases. Sometimes a “softer” approach actually hurts relationships. Other times it can be too time-consuming or introduce a conflict of interest.

Consider the case of an internal Compliance team. Nobody enjoys their work being audited; it is a hassle at best. If the Compliance team relied on a soft approach, it would have to persuade every other team at the company that an audit is necessary, and how and when it should be done. Aside from the pure inefficiency of this arrangement, it would lead to a lot of negative emotions. Teams can easily come to resent the auditors, and a conflict of interest can also ensue if some teams are able to negotiate less frequent audits than others. In this case a formal, bureaucratic approach is the savvy and compassionate solution; we can call it “compassionate bureaucracy.” It allows the auditors to hide from negativity behind a bureaucratic wall. As the sign on many shops in New York City says, “We love your dogs. Unfortunately the state does not allow them in the stores.”


People Intervention

Changing rules is time- and energy-consuming as multiple people have to understand and remember the new rules and then adjust their behavior accordingly. It can also decrease employees’ feeling of security as change means unpredictability. Frequent changes can promote skepticism and distrust in the leadership’s abilities: “if so many new rules are needed, they probably don’t know what they are doing.”

At the same time, policies and processes only affect formal communication channels. Leaders desiring to improve communication may be thinking about a more nuanced change, something that will help the team grow more cohesive. Yet another weekly meeting will not make it happen.

A more subtle approach is keeping the rules in play but changing the people or just the roles of those people. If two of your team members do not like each other, changing their roles or responsibilities to allow them to not interact with each other is a solution. Putting a new person in charge of a particular project may be all that is needed to transform the communication patterns overnight. Even adding a summer intern to an existing team can change its dynamic. The subtlety is, of course, in the choice of the people. 

It is impossible to give a comprehensive treatise on making people decisions, and the author is not under delusion of being able to create one. Fundamentally, all you can do is to (1) speed up your learning, and (2) seek the advice of experienced mentors when making people decisions. The secret then is to surround yourself with others who understand humans on a deeper level than you do. Then you can ask for their guidance in making people decisions and in your own learning. What kind of people can make good mentors in this area?

  • Salespeople
  • Politicians
  • Performers, public speakers
  • Psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists
  • Priests, spiritual teachers
  • Anyone with experience in the hospitality industry
  • Anyone with experience in law enforcement
  • Anyone who grew up in a collectivist culture

There is more than one skill set involved in understanding humans. Healing a person is different from entertaining a person, which is different from gaining a person’s compliance in a situation of adversity. Prepare to keep learning for the rest of your life.


Environmental Intervention

More subtle than the two previous kinds, environmental interventions achieve its goal indirectly. It is well-documented that people’s choices are strongly influenced by their environment. Place some unhealthy snacks at the office, and people will eat them. Place some healthy snacks at the office, and people will eat them too! 

Perhaps the most famous environmental intervention to affect company communication has been the introduction of open office plans. By many accounts (including Bernstein Ethan S. and Turban Stephen. The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 2018. B37320170239) those have failed to accomplish their purpose: open offices come with a significant decrease in both productivity and collaboration (though some people disagree). Joel Spolsky, Co-Founder of Stack Overflow, Fog Creek Software and Trello has long written on the value of private offices for developers. Google somehow got away with it, even though an ex-employee of 8.5 years calls the layout “extremely distracting”.

On that note, Google is famous for environmental interventions. Its offices are deliberately designed to encourage communication between the employees:

“We dot our floors with microkitchens, pockets where you can grab a coffee, a piece of organic fruit, a snack, and take a few minutes to relax... And we use the placement of these microkitchens to draw people from different groups together. Often they’ll sit at the border between two different teams, with the goal of having those people bump into one another. At a minimum they might have a great conversation. And maybe they’ll hit on an idea for our users that hasn’t been thought of yet.”  

(Bock, Laszlo. Work rules!: insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead. 2015.)

A few words about the author: Laszlo Bock was a Senior VP of People Operations at Google. His book is packed with ideas on environmental interventions and even though it is strongly biased, has well-deserved its place as a NYT bestseller. You should read it too. It may also be of interest that prior to transitioning to a Human Resources role, Laszlo Bock worked a dozen odd jobs, from a deli and a restaurant to teaching and tutoring to being a lifeguard to helping start his own nonprofit to working for McKinsey & Company as a consultant. While he jokingly calls his background “a guidance counselor’s nightmare,” in fact this kind of background is excellent for acquiring people skills. Many tech managers would become much better leaders if they spent a year working a minimum-wage job as a waiter or as a retail sales associate at a department store. 

Digital tools used in the workplace can be seen as comprising the “virtual environment”. The choice of those tools is known to have a subtle but profound influence on team communication, and many interventions have been tried, from quitting Slack to banning all internal emails. Bizarrely, quitting an imperfect tool seems to be a bigger problem than finding the perfect one.

Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations from meetings at Amazon. (This is technically a policy intervention targeting the presenter, but is an environmental intervention for the listeners.) He is not alone in his conviction. Edward Tufte, a statistician at Yale University, has written repeatedly on the subject offering well-researched and absolutely devastating critique of the medium, most notably in Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Second Edition, Graphics Press, 2006, According to him, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 happened because the scientists used slides to present their discoveries to stakeholders. The slides effectively said that the risk was very, very high, but the style of presentation was so unintuitive that the stakeholders missed the message entirely. If your job includes making decisions based on analytics, read this book!


Training Intervention

The premise for this type of intervention is that many people don’t know how to communicate well.

You can schedule a meeting between the relevant stakeholders, but many meetings end up going nowhere. Countless hours get spent discussing fine technical details of a hypothetical solution that nobody is going to implement. Everyone is looking very smart but is not making any decision about the next action, just assuming that making things happen is somebody else’s responsibility.

You can move people from one role to another only to see the same pattern replayed over and over again. Why can it be so hard for highly intelligent, educated adults to organize themselves and figure out what the project is, what they don’t understand and what to do next? It turns out, many bright students transitioning from academia directly to a software developer position have never learned those skills to an acceptable level. A senior developer with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and 3-5 years of professional experience can have less common sense than a kid who went to a community college and spent a couple years working at a convenience store. 

You can build a Google-style microkitchen, but many people just won’t start random conversations with strangers from another department, not even after having seen each other every day for a year. And even when those conversations do start, quite often they proceed like this:

A: The coffee is great today.

B: Yes it is.

A: Cool.

B: Well, it was nice to meet you.

A: Nice to meet you too.

It takes a surprising degree of skill and confidence to transition to discussing an actual project that the other person knows nothing about. You have to “impose” your agenda on another person and then quickly explain a technical matter in a way that is comprehensible and at least a little bit fun. Even Google with its carefully engineered environment is probably missing out on 9 out of 10 potential insights because people just feel too awkward to form new connections.

A solution is to teach people the life skills that you wish they would have learned somewhere else. Many companies are already doing it in small ways:

  • A project manager can be sent to a Scrum Master certification course.
  • Team-building activities such as volunteering, hackathons, out-of-town trips and not only bringing the people on your team together but are also building up their overall communication competency. Many employees at tech companies are not used to coordinating their efforts with a team other than by picking the next ticket from a task management system, so every new experience adds to their toolbox.
  • Hosting an internal employee competition asking everyone who is interested to submit and develop an innovative idea is also an indirect way of connecting people inside the organization and improving their ability to collaborate with each other.

The author of this guide has started the Social Nerd project precisely to provide communication skills training in a more systematic fashion. The target audience are all “nerds” at your company such as software developers, data scientists, analysts, database administrators, you get the idea. The training is offered both in a corporate and in an individual format; only the former is relevant for the purposes of this guide. 

Corporate training is focused first and foremost on connecting people inside your organization, allowing for their efficient collaboration and building up their social skills in the meantime. Notice how it still benefits the individuals and not just the organization: they are learning priceless life skills for free! If you would like to learn more, start by reading How It Works and then you can reach out for more information.


Realignment Intervention

The first premise for this type of intervention is that people would find a way to communicate more and better if they wanted to. The second premise is that some people would be happy to communicate more and better, except that circumstances make them not what to. A realignment intervention intends to eliminate those “circumstances.”

We are not talking about temporary obstacles to good communication and high productivity in general such as burnout, disease and family issues. Those can be addressed with good sleep, good nutrition, exercise and a long-needed vacation. Unfortunately, this method does not work when the cause is more permanent.

There are two kinds of situations in which your people may not want to communicate better or perform better in general, even if they can. Realignment interventions only work for the second kind. Unfortunately, it is common to confuse one with the other. 

The first possibility is articulated in a story told by David Schwartz in his 1959 classic, Schwartz, David Joseph. 1981. “The magic of thinking big.” Fireside; Reprint edition, 1987. The story is so clear and powerful, it is worth quoting here at length:

“A few months ago I spent several hours with a friend who is personnel director for an appliance manufacturer. We talked about “building men.” He explained his “personnel audit system” and what he had learned from it.
“We have about eight hundred nonproduction people, “ he began. “Under our personnel audit system, an assistant and I interview each employee every six months. Our purpose is simple. We want to learn how we can help him in his job. We think this is a good practice because each person working with us is important, else he wouldn’t be on the payroll. 
We are careful not to ask the employee any point-blank questions. Insead we encourage him to talk about whatever he wants to. We aim to get his honest impressions. After each interview we fill out a rating form on the employee’s attitudes toward specific aspects of his job.
Now, here’s something I’ve learned,” he went on. “Our employees fit into one of two categories, group A and group B, on the basis of how they think toward their jobs.
The persons in group B talk mainly about security, company retirement plans, sick leave policy, extra time off, what we’re doing to improve the insurance program, and if they will be asked to work overtime next March as they were last March. They also talk a lot about disagreeable features of their job, things they don’t like in fellow workers, and so on. People in group B — and they include close to 80 percent of all nonproduction personnel — view their jobs as a soft of necessary evil.
The group A fellow sees his job through different glasses. He is concerned about his future and wants concrete suggestions on what he can do to make faster progress. He doesn’t expect us to give him anything except a chance. The group A people think on a broader scale. They make suggestions for improving the business. They regard these interviews in my office as constructive. But the group B people often feel our personnel audit system is just a brainwashing affair, and they’re glad to get it over with.
Now, there’s a way I check attitudes and what they mean to job success. All recommendations for promotions, pay increases, and special privileges are channeled to me by the employee’s immediate supervisor. Almost invariably, it’s a group A person who was recommended. And again almost without exception, problems come from the group B category.
The biggest challenge in my job,” he said, “is to try and help people move from group B to group A. It’s not easy, though, because until a person thinks their job is important and thinks positively about it, he can’t be helped.”

That is, most people think “a job is a necessary evil” and are not constantly reflecting how they could do it better. While it may be less so for a modern tech company than for an appliance manufacturer in the 1950s, the distinction still stands: some people (group B) are less interested in learning and improving than others (group A). The biggest challenge in the personnel director’s job, helping people move from group B to group A, is not a realignment intervention. Group B people are not interested in changing because of how they think about their job, and none of the intervention types in this guide can effectively address it. 

A second possibility, and one that is amenable to realignment interventions, involves group A people who made a conscious decision of not improving their communication due to it not being in their best interest. This possibility has been illustrated in the case studies about Jenny, Patrick and Nina. Patrick is not lazy — he is working hard and has been promoted, clearly a group A person. So is Nina — she has built a profitable trading algorithm, a very difficult task. They are ambitious and want to get ahead; it’s just that their interests are partially misaligned with the company’s, which results in them acting in seemingly strange ways.

Realignment interventions attempt to resolve the mismatch by realigning the incentives of everyone involved, most commonly by manipulating the way compensation is calculated. Patent law is a case in point: prior to the patent system keeping your inventions secret was the smart thing to do. After the patent system was introduced, disclosing inventions became more profitable than concealing them, and now governments can barely keep up with the volume of new applications. Imagine if those governments have instead asked inventors to “please, disclose your valuable ideas because it is serving your nation!” It would have had some effect, but one cannot imagine it being sufficient to generate millions of patents that have been granted in the U.S. alone.

It is very important not to mistake a group A person with misaligned incentives for a group B person! If as a leader you were to come to Patrick or Nina and explain that they were “not committed to their job” (group B mindset) or, worse yet, “lacked the spirit of teamwork” and that they had to change their behavior (and start communicating more transparently) on some kind of moral grounds, it would be plainly insulting. 

This mistake cannot be stressed enough, as its consequences can be devastating for your relationship with the person. 

Some employees have children and must leave at 5pm. If the last meeting of the day also ends at 5pm, those employees cannot go “above and beyond” by staying late. A realignment intervention would be having the meeting end at 4pm. 

Some feel mistreated. They may have received a smaller bonus than they think they deserve or were passed over a promotion. The company rejected their idea to open-source an interesting project. They were promised a 90-minute lunch break every day, but are only getting 75. Whatever it is, after a certain line is crossed, even a group A person may conclude that the company has broken a promise and that they are not going to care anymore. You do not know where this line is, and you may not agree that it is an appropriate line if they told you. Just know that once it is crossed, any rational arguments are unlikely to succeed; it would be like a thief stealing $100 from you, then giving you a lecture how money cannot buy happiness. A realignment intervention in such a situation takes incredible skill, but it is the only type that will work when the person is not agreeing with the de facto terms of employment. 

It is a good idea to always be on the lookout for realignment interventions, even when a person seems to be from group B. It means seeing things from other people’s perspective, and it is an amazing way to win loyalty and friendship. You can also think about realignment interventions as negotiations with a win/win mindset.

Jenny’s and Patrick’s data science team from the first case study can be helped by introducing an internal wiki page where each data scientist can describe their breakthrough discoveries thus creating a verifiable track record. Ideas can then be shared by sending a link, and in this way prolific contributors are more likely to be recognized. Better yet, moving away from individual performance evaluation is a much more powerful way of stimulating collaboration, though it is not without its own downsides.

Nina’s case can be helped by guaranteeing her high percentage bonus for some period whether or not she remains employed by the trading firm. This way she will be motivated to have other people run the trading strategy, as she will be collecting her paycheck anyway. She will also understand that if the trading strategy is not making money, she will not get paid either, so the incentives will be perfectly aligned. Of course, this may not be the best arrangement for the firm on other grounds, but it does resolve the communication problem.

Evaluating the effectiveness of interventions

The author has to deliver on his promise of intellectual honesty by touching a topic that is usually avoided: evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. In order to measure improvements in internal communication resulting from a particular intervention we have to first define what “good communication” at a company is. For a start, can we at least agree how “good” an individual conversation is? 

The idea proves a nonstarter; it is far too nebulous. The good news is, academic researchers have long studied a related but simpler concept, the “skill” or “communicative competence” of an individual person and have devised many different ways of quantifying it. The bad news is, there is no consensus even over this apparently more intuitive concept. 

Researchers in the field of communications Steven Wilson and Christina Sabee, then from Purdue University, wrote in a 2003 review article with over 200 references:

“One concern is that it is difficult to define exactly what constitutes communicative competence… “there are almost as many definitions of communication com-

petence as there are researchers interested in the construct”... Scholars from

the “structuralist” school emphasize that communicators normally are competent in

the sense that they succeed “in making their intentions understood….” Functionalists seek to identify skills and strategies that enhance a communicator’s likelihood of accomplishing goals.”

(Wilson, Steven R., and Christina M. Sabee. “Explicating Communicative Competence as a Theoretical Term.” Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills, edited by John O. Greene and Brant Raney Burleson, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, p. 4.)

If defining “good” communication appears out of reach, why not avoid the question altogether? Improved communication is just a means to an end, and we absolutely can attempt to measure this “end.” The field of human resources has long embraced organizational metrics such as revenue per employee, job satisfaction and turnover rate. However, such crude metrics will not capture the effects of an individual people decision or one additional meeting. Environmental interventions are the most amenable to this kind of measurement, which is probably why Google focused on them. It is best if you have the scale to conduct A/B tests, such as by varying the placement of micro kitchens across several offices and then comparing revenue per employee in each office — assuming that each office has a similar demographic mix and is working on similar tasks; both are unlikely. 

Electronic communication can be measured quantitatively. Email volume and average length, frequency of conference calls and their distribution by the time of the day can be tracked. None of those is necessarily a good target metric to improve, so we will not be able to say that a corporate training course was successful because it led to a greater volume of email, as compared to a control group that did not participate in the course. Netflix, famous for using metrics to drive engagement, frankly admitted during a RecSys conference, “The metrics used [by Netflix] to optimize the recommendation system cannot distinguish between an enhanced quality of life and an addiction,” meaning more views, clicks, or likes are not always better.

However, those metrics will help us determine that an intervention had some effect. Then at the very least we will be able to flag the interventions that are doing something and conduct a subsequent investigation to determine, what this “something” really is. For example, to investigate why a training course led to an increase in email volume, a group of experts conducting the investigation could interview a handful of randomly chosen employees and associate each interview with a handful of scores, each ranging from 1 to 10: how engaged the employee seems, how outgoing, and so forth. For each interviewed person, the recent increase in email volume can also be recorded. We would then find out, which of the qualitative scores (engaged, outgoing, etc.) had the greatest correlation with the recent increase in email volume. This would give us a hint as to the actual effect of the intervention. E.g. it may be that disengaged employees started emailing more often because the course made them a little bit more engaged.

If none of those evaluation methods seem very promising, there is still hope. Even before the computer revolution and before the modern field of Human Resources there were CEOs who led their companies to great heights. Just because you cannot do something 100% cleanly and scientifically does not mean that you cannot do it at all. There is an age-old method of evaluating interventions which is… talking to people. However imperfect it may be, it worked for others and it will work for you as well.

You do not have to be the one doing all the talking. If your team is of manageable size, it is also possible to have someone else — an HR person, a project manager, a team lead — regularly talk to every person on the team and report to you how things are going overall. It will definitely let you know how your intervention is going. More specifically, it will tell you whether the people like the intervention, not necessarily whether it is working as intended, but that is still a lot.

There are sneakier ways to measure communication. The Rock band Van Halen was famous for requesting in its concert contract a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed. The purpose was to quickly find out if the promoter had read the contract carefully. If there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, it was a sign that the venue was likely unprepared to accommodate the humongous production. 

You can employ the same exact technique to make sure your emails get read, and you do not even have to reveal your true motive:  “when replying to this email, please put “NEW YORK” in the subject so I do not miss it.” This one is especially effective for job postings receiving a huge amount of irrelevant responses.

Feel free to experiment in other ways. Tell a piece of information to one person and later see who else ends up knowing it. This is a game you can be playing every day.

In the future better techniques for evaluating communication will be devised. The author has been working on developing his own approaches; here are some promising ideas:

  • Ability to explain and to understand. This metric requires interactive participation. It will be eventually incorporated in the author’s Social Nerd Connection training. Person A picks a random story from a book and has 30 seconds to explain it to person B. Then person B has to answer multiple choice questions measuring comprehension of the story. The measurement is repeated for different pairs of people A and B. 

  • Mental maps of the organization. This metric requires participants to answer a survey that can make them look a little stupid. Survey people if they know names and roles of those on the same or other teams and who reports to whom. This method will be able to measure informal connections as knowing someone’s name is difficult to fake. It will take a lot of experimentation, however, to make it efficient and not awkward.

  • Evaluation of leadership potential. For people interventions, it is desirable to evaluate e.g. which person would make a good manager before making the change. This proposed evaluation method is a 10-week undertaking. Take a group of individual contributors interested in becoming managers. Assign them all the same exact project to complete. Provide each with a $500 budget. Each is given a pool of potential interns to interview and hire from. Aspiring managers have to hire 1 or 2 interns and use them to complete the project, without doing any hands-on work. A group of experienced mentors is providing guidance to all aspirants. The quality of the final product determines, which of the aspirants are actually promoted to managers. 

Please, report back if you end up trying any of those approaches and what comes out of it.

What are you willing to give?

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.

Origin unknown.

Imagine your intervention succeeding. What will be your regrets? Can you list some positive aspects that are present today but may be absent after the communication will have “improved”? This reflection may help clarify why you are not there already: you personally may be unwilling to give up those positive aspects. Recall that the system is where it is because it benefits from its current state, and you are a part of this system. 

Have you ever taken a vacation for 2-3 weeks or longer? As a leader, this is one of the best things you can do to improve communication on your team or at your company. Hopefully, you come back and see that everything is going well. You feel refreshed; strangely, your people also seem refreshed even though they did not go anywhere. You commend them for having done a good job in your absence and things go back to normal.

Reflect on it for a second: if after your absence people seem a little more productive and a little more social, it implies that your presence is hurting the company. The best solution may be a people intervention removing you from your role. 

On the other hand, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. If you want to be a good CEO, you may have to start by being a bad CEO who is doing more harm than good, then get better over time. 

However, if your departure is out of the question, this is already one less option to consider. If changing your title or responsibilities is equally out of the question, it eliminates a second and potentially very powerful intervention. Some “leaders,” intentionally putting the word in quotes, have lots and lots of options that they would not consider, and that is the real obstacle to change. The problem is not that improving communication is hard. The problem is that to get something you have to give something, and they are unwilling to give anything.

Want everyone to be on the same page? Prepare for bureaucracy. There will be fewer embarrassing miscommunications, but everything will take twice as long. 

Want better collaboration between the data science team and the marketing team? They may realize that they do not need you to relay information back and forth with a 1-week delay when they can just directly talk to each other. You will lose influence.

Want team members to build trusting relationships with each other? Several of them may end up quitting to start their own company.

Communication is power, and improved communication among your people can be uncomfortable for you as a leader. Dictators and autocrats see it as a threat. You have to be willing to yield some power to the people for your interventions to be successful. This is not a moral judgment: if, for example, you have built a company from the ground up, arguably you have a moral right to run it as you please, within reason. In this case your business will not benefit from improved communication due to your unwillingness to cede control, but this may be an acceptable choice. 

Sometimes a leader's unwillingness to give up control stems from misaligned incentives rather than from a love of power per se. Keeping in mind that everyone is a part of the “system,” we can extend the concept of a realignment intervention and also apply it to the leader — to you. If you sense that better communication between your people is not good for you personally for some inexplicable reason, do not get paralyzed by the moral dilemma. See instead if you can get your personal incentives realigned.

One way how it can be done is described in the curious story related by Noam Wasserman in Wasserman, Noam. The founder's dilemmas: anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls that can sink a startup. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012. A startup had growing tensions between the several co-founders. The situation was that one of the co-founders was taking the project far more seriously than the others, and his original equity stake was disproportionately small compared to his current level of contribution. The resulting feeling of unfairness made effective collaboration all but impossible. The solution was to reallocate equity which, paradoxically, was also in the best interest of the less-contributing co-founders. After all, if the team could not work in harmony, the company would not go anywhere and the equity allocation would not matter.

In addition to not giving up control, the other common leaders’ issue is lack of control. What it looks like is a team that is fairly clueless as to what is going on with the company, where they are going, and what they are trying to do except perhaps for the most immediate tasks. Think of a college professor in the middle of teaching a complicated math class. As one whiteboard full of formulas replaces another, everyone is nodding in agreement. However, were the professor to pause and start quizzing the students, most would not be able to explain what was said in the last few minutes. Even worse, many students would not be able to say anything about the lecture they had been listening to for the last hour!

Try asking your people what they know about the company and any current initiatives. If they seem clueless, that is the problem. Open offices and communication training will not help. What will help is you spending time every week disseminating information, literally giving lectures. Start from the very basics as if you were doing an investor presentation: what is the business model, who are the clients and so forth. 

Before pleading or nudging others to communicate “better,” start with yourself. Spend a few minutes every week to explain to your team what is going on. This is your job anyway, and who knows, after listening to you some people may actually develop an interest in what the company is doing!

Sergey Orshanskiy. August, 2020.


Congratulations for having read until the end of this guide! I would love to hear your thoughts, which of those ideas you may have tried and what was the result. Please, reach out using the Contact page, email sergey at the domain of this page (substitute accordingly) or connect on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sergeyaorshanskiy/

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Tags

leadership, soft skills


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