Yeah, they sure do make a lot of
cold, hard, noise, Captain.
The Captain feeds his fury staring, then reaches out his
hand and Boss Paul lays the blackjack in it. As the chain
guards finish and stand up, trembling with rage, the Captain
takes a convulsive step forward and brings the sap down behind
Luke’s ear. As Luke tumbles down the littered embankment
toward the men:
Don’t you never talk that way to me!
You hear? You hear? Never!
His rage subsides and his voice becomes calm, reasonable.
(to the men)
What we got here is failure to
communicate. Some men you can’t reach,
that is they just don’t listen when
you talk reasonable so you get what
we had here last week, which is the
way he wants it, well he gets it,
and I don’t like it any better than
you men.

Click for Movie Clip

Many of you will recognize these famous lines from Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  For those of you under the age of 35, you really should check out this classic from Netflix.  Cool Hand Luke is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment.  One line of the film’s dialogue from Strother Martin, who plays the prison warden called Captain, is often quoted: “What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” Anyone seeing the movie realizes that Luke is very aware of what Captain is communicating; he just doesn’t accept it.

For years there has been a colossal focus around the concept known as a Lack of Communication.  The prevalence of the so-called communication deficiency has become a magnetic reason for which to attract every problem.  The more heed I give to this issue, the more I am convinced there is no such thing as a “lack of communication”.  This vague ambiguous term has been propagated to justify every fault from why the paperclips ran out, to the Strategic Plan’s failure, and the company’s underperformance.  The communication failure movement has become one of the great “cop-outs” of our time.  As a Leader, you must eradicate this excuse from your business.  The elimination of this one term from your business will immediately improve cooperation, attainment of goals, and your overall business performance.

I recognize the implication of my position.  It concludes all of those classes and seminars you have participated in, from all of those communication consultants were an immense waste of time and money.  And even worse, rather than aiding problematic situations, they have been harmful.  Yes, that is exactly my conviction.  Communication facilitators who have come to your company and lectured about listening, personality styles, diversity, the role the sexes, etc., were misguided.  Sure there is value in being a better listener and understanding others perspectives and traits, but the basic premise, that if we just learn to “talk” to each other correctly everything else will work itself out is vastly erroneous.  Communication experts and consultants are today’s business “snake oil” salesman.

Anyone who works with me will hear me refer to the concept of “root cause” analysis. The root cause is the underlying reason a problem exists.  In my article, Creating Great Ideas by Exercising Your Mind, I compare root cause methodology to a four year old asking, “Why?”  If you’ve studied and implemented this concept, you already realize that unless you get to the root cause of situations, you really are just putting impermanent Band-Aids on potentially permanent problems.  You are reacting to fires and creating the subsequent emergency.  The idea or concept of “communication problems” is about as far away from a “root cause” analysis as you can get.  Communication problems are only symptoms at best.  If you are going to be a Street Smart Leader you need to realize that communication is never the problem.  You need to start asking “Why?”

Let me give you an example: Joe and Sally have a project assigned to them.  They both go off and begin to work on the project.  Two weeks later the project is due and after reviewing their work you discover you are completely disappointed with their product.  Their work is inconclusive, incomplete, inaccurate, and you are baffled by their inability to have concluded the assignment properly.  As you expound your frustration to them, they begin to ponder the excuses as to why they should not be held accountable.

First, they remember the communication consultant who came to the company last quarter.  And since it was made clear in the classes that communication problems are the “root of all evil”, they quickly go there.  They assert there must have been a communication problem between you and them for the work to be so far off from your expectation. Somehow you didn’t explain the task properly or they took away the wrong information or concept of the task. Now you know better, and although it would be uncomplicated to concur with them, endorsing the communication consultant’s viewpoint, your stomach binds into a knot.  As a leader, you know this isn’t right.  You know they were furnished clear concise directives.  You expected them, with their level of experience and competency, to fill in the blanks and perform; because after all it is not your job to hold their hands through every step of an assignment. You make this clear.

Next, they look at each other and begin to discuss the communication failure they must have had between themselves.  Apparently they didn’t have enough time to meet, or when they did meet couldn’t agree, or maybe they just miss understood what each other’s was going to be doing in terms of completing the task.  Regardless of the excuses, they are trying to avoid accountability on the basis of a communication problem.  As a leader you must crush the notion that communication problems can be used as the excuse for non-performance.

If you want to propel beyond communication problem excuses and solve issues, you must drive down to “root cause” analysis.  Often the root cause is simple; Joe and Sally just don’t like each other and so they can’t work well on a project together.  This is remedied by sitting them down and enlightening them on the realization that their personal disputes are the reason why their communication broke down.  Clarifying how petty differences will not constitute a motive for underperformance in their jobs and that regardless of how they feel about work towards each other, you expect them to leave-it-at-the-door and do their work professionally.  If this reoccurs you need only make it clear that if they cannot perform, irrespective of conflicts, you will find someone else who can.

The root cause of communication difficulty can often be a more complex reason such as the constraints of poor organizational structure or a non-cohesive gravely designed process.

Organizational difficulties can be one of the more impenetrable root causes of poor communication.  Most likely, you do not possess the authority to reorganize the company.  But you can understand where organizational breakdowns are occurring and why.  For example, does your company have a highly compartmentalized structure with different departments pursuing diverse goals and incentives?  Is the structure counterproductive to the pursuit of inter-departmental cooperation?  You may not be able to change the structural drivers that are reinforcing uncooperative behavior, but you are able to reach across those departmental walls and build bridges which heighten your team’s attainment of goals.  Some of those bridges will be from personal bonds with the leaders of other groups, grounded in mutual respect, trust and concern for the mutual welfare of each other.  Some bridges may just be the result of creating win-win situations completely motivated by the self-interests of both people on either side of the wall.  Regardless, you must find a way for your team to succeed with whatever organizational challenges exist.

Let’s take a moment and look at where a process problem is sometimes blamed on communication.  Process improvements and re-engineering efforts are major subjects and there is an abundance of books and expert programs which can be engaged to streamline your company efforts.  One of the simplest and most effective tools to evaluate your processes is a Deployment Chart.  A Deployment Chart is a matrix based flow chart showing the relationships between process participants. Learn to examine how you are asking people to do things to determine where the breakdown is originating.  Evaluating and redefining your processes to ensure a smooth flow can eliminate what may appear to be a communication problem.

There are many other “root causes” that disguise themselves as communication problems.  Some of them are complex and multilayered and require in-depth analysis.  More often than not, they are the progenies of lack of commitment, lack of focus and lack of creativity.  Once you barricade “lack of communication” as an excuse for non-performance and demand to understand the root cause of your team’s failures, you will activate an immediate acceleration in accomplishment. I realize there may be some communication consultants out there, who upon reading this, will conclude that I just do not understand communication issues.  I would contend it is the superficial ideology of these consultants that is at the “root cause” of many communication issues.  I challenge you to think seriously on this subject and dismiss the tide of brainwashing which has overcome us in recent years.

You need to be a Tough Leader and deal with the hard subjects behind your problems.  You need to scrape back the artificial answers such as “lack of communication”, and excavate your genuine challenges.  Only then are you going to discover tangible solutions. Avoid the “feel good’ fallacy of better communication. Deal with the material issues and produce substantial results.  Those real results will be the building blocks for your Winning A-Team.  And one more thing… it is amazing how well a Winning A-team can communicate!