Communication: A Duplication of Ideas
by Andy Brough
In the technology savvy world of social and electronic media, it’s certainly worth considering whether or not our interpersonal communication is actually improving as a result of these advances. This is particularly important when one considers the dynamic of the leader-follower relationship. Even with the modern luxuries of email on our mobile phones, instant messaging, and video conferencing, the possibility for misunderstanding, ambiguity, and even confusion still exists. When all of these complexities are considered in a global and even cross-cultural setting, the challenge of interpersonal communication is even further exacerbated.
So what does all of this really mean for the future of our virtual meetings, instant messaging and, yes, even good old face-to-face communication? (Do you still remember that?) How can leaders ensure that communication really happens, and happens effectively?
In attempting to answer these questions, we will consider some helpful techniques for self-evaluation and conclude with some suggestions on how leaders can take practical steps to improve communication.
Communication Concepts in the Leader-Follower Relationship
How can we avoid talking past one another? Well, let’s revisit some commonly accepted communication concepts in the leader-follower relationship.
This model could represent any interpersonal communication between two parties, but a context might be helpful.
Enter George. George is a 45-year-old manager of a multinational IT firm, XNet, based in Singapore. He is on a conference call to his subordinate in Bangalore, India - a lady called Sumitra. Sumitra is a systems engineer who has worked for XNet for the past 3 weeks. She is new to the XNet account and is still learning the ropes of how the shipments between Bangalore and Singapore are managed. A particular shipment is late due to a problem with XNet’s raw materials supplier and, consequently, George’s key account has lost revenue.George is represented as the sender, the source of the communication. He asks Sumitra for an update on the shipment and an explanation of why this problem occurred.
Notice that the model indicates an interesting phenomenon; the sender encodes his message (a subconscious act) through his personality style, the words he uses, his education, his background and a host of other assumptions and biases. Just to complicate matters, Sumitra decodes the message from George, through her own set of assumptions and biases and receives this message via these filters. Here is the second opportunity for misunderstanding.
She then encodes her feedback to George including a step-by-step analysis of the reasons behind the late shipment. Once again, this is filtered through the feedback channel. All that George hears (all that he decodes, because of his frustration) is a list of excuses. George is not someone who enjoys conflict, and he responds to Sumitra with a stony silence. Sumitra, in turn, interprets the silence as consent on George’s part and she incorrectly assumes that he is happy with her explanation. In actual fact, all that has happened is that he has retreated into himself and refuses to discuss the matter any further. Sumitra incorrectly assumes that the matter has been resolved. Not only have these two individuals not understood one another; they have talked past one another. The fact they are also communicating cross-culturally merely adds to the communication breakdown.
But does this model go far enough in explaining what really happens in the communication process? The short answer is, to some extent.[ii] We know that communication is not a linear process. We also now know that meaning in communication is constructed beyond simply the words we use and that, whilst the model illustrates communication flowing from sender to receiver and back again, it is far more likely that communication happens almost simultaneously. This makes it almost impossible to freeze the communication and isolate one person as the sender and the other as the receiver. The medium itself also plays a huge role in influencing just how effective you really are in communicating. In the case of George and Sumitra, the fact that they are talking on the phone without the luxury of non-verbal feedback clearly impacts on the extent to which they achieve a “duplication of ideas.” This doesn’t mean that we should throw out the communication model, but rather that leaders need a deeper appreciation of the complexities of communication. So, what are some of the techniques that can be used to evaluate whether or not communication has been effective?
Techniques to Evaluate Communication
Four key techniques that can be used for evaluating interpersonal leader communication styles are; (a) openness, (b) supportiveness, (c) motivation, and (d) empowerment.[iii] Here are some questions to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your communication.
Are you being open enough in your communication so that you make use of appropriate self-disclosure? One way of evaluating this is to see the level of trust that exists in your leader–follower relationships.
Do your followers give clear indications that they feel that you are supporting them in both the frequency and quality of your communication? Are you supportive when you provide feedback to followers?
Is your communication motivating? Are you able to get people to do things willingly as a result of how you communicate? Do you communicate vision clearly and with a compelling appeal to both logic and emotion?
Is your communication empowering? Are followers able to execute and carry out tasks with a clear mandate? Do your followers feel that you have communicated everything that they need to do their jobs? Are they able to carry out your wishes fully?
If the answer to any of there evaluating questions is ‘no,’ then it might well be time to consider a few guidelines on how to improve your interpersonal communication.
Guidelines on How to Improve Interpersonal Communication
Communication improvements need to be made consciously. Let’s take a moment to consider ways to improve both verbal and non-verbal communication.
It’s a good idea to reconsider the speed with which you speak, particularly when you’re communicating with somebody whose first language is different to your own. Try giving people time to both think about what you’re saying and an opportunity to make valuable contributions. It has been recommended that some form of “turn-taking” protocol be put in place particularly if meetings are happening at a distance. Try and avoid interrupting or completing other people’s sentences. You may find that people from certain cultures need time to work through ideas and suggestions. So try and avoid putting people on the spot and expecting them to give you an instant answer on a particular proposal. Keep your language simple by eliminating difficult words and remember that idioms and slang may work well in a local context but can often be lost in a global context and actually reinforce confusion. (By the way, please try and avoid those acronyms altogether.) It’s often a good idea to reinforce what you’ve discussed on the telephone or even face-to-face with follow-up written communication. One of the greatest tools that you can use in verbal communication is honesty. Honesty is really important, particularly if you’re lost in a conversation. If you don’t understand or if someone is speaking too rapidly, or if you are having trouble understanding someone’s accent . . . be honest. Ask the person you are speaking to, to slow down and then try and focus on the content rather than being distracted by a particular communication style. If you are unsure about something, then ask questions.
Proposing is a verbal behaviour that puts forward a new suggestion, or idea. It is a superb technique for stimulating conversation and is something that every effective leader should add to their communications skills set.
Enhancing (or what has been referred to in the USA as “building”) is a behaviour that also takes the form of a proposal. The difference here though is that in enhancing verbal behavior extends, develops or builds on a proposal that has already been made by someone else. For leaders looking to create common ground in a conversation with followers this is a really helpful technique. It does two things; firstly, effective building requires effective listening, and secondly, it really makes your followers feel that their contributions to the conversation are adding value.
Supporting is a verbal behaviour that most of us would regard as simply agreeing. In the verbal context, one uses supporting to make a conscious expression of that agreement in the form of a verbal statement that expresses support for a particular point of view.
Leaders should not avoid disagreeing with followers. In fact the research indicates that the high level of disagreement in a conversation, providing those disagreements have been validated with supporting evidence, on consensus, the tighter the agreement. The trick though is how you disagree. Disagreeing as a verbal behaviour states direct disagreement on an issue. People do not hear what comes off of the word “no.” For the disagreement to be effective, make sure that you give well thought through reasons as to why you disagree or issue, before disagreeing.
Avoid Defending or Attacking
Effective leaders understand the importance of not confusing communication that focuses on an issue with attacking an individual or taking a defensive position. This kind of defensive posture usually involves some kind of value judgment and emotional overtone; (“Don’t blame me, it’s not my fault. It’s his responsibility.”) Defending/attacking is to be avoided in leader-follower communication because it’s usually about people and not issues.
Testing/Checking understanding, summarizing
Leaders need to work on effective ways to minimize misunderstanding and ambiguity in communication. One of the most powerful techniques that can be used to achieve this is simply by recapping and summarizing on what has already been communicated. It is also a very effective tool to check your understanding of what has been agreed upon and communicated. Words such as, “Am I right in saying?” or “Can I just check my understanding?” go a long way to reconfirming what has already been communicated and what the receiver of that communication has understood you to have said, or intended to say.
Seeking and Giving Information
Leaders need to establish, when communicating that they do not rely on purely giving the information. This kind of communication approach is not inclusive and there is no guarantee that your audience, (your followers) will absorb, internalize, or even understand what you have told them. Whilst giving information during communication cannot be avoided, it is important to balance this with a focus on asking questions.
Bringing in or shutting out (Involving and interrupting)
All of the nine behavior categories that have been mentioned can be used to either bring people into a conversation or shut them out. Bringing in (involving) is a technique that can be effectively used to include people that are not participating fully in the conversation. Shutting out (interrupting) is a communication technique that should be used sparingly but may be necessary to limit the participation or contribution of a particular individual who is taking a conversation in a direction you as a leader don’t want to go. In order to either bring in or shut out, one can use any of the verbal categories described in this section.
I would propose that a vital aspect of this communication competence is ensuring that our face-to-face communication demonstrates verbal/non-verbal congruence.[vi] Whether we like it or not, our spoken communication is combined with non-verbal messages. Congruency occurs when the verbal and non-verbal messages agree. When this happens, your audience is not only more likely to agree with your message; they will also show greater understanding of that message. Conversely, when there is incongruence, your audience will doubt what you are saying without even knowing why. An expression that describes this effect of incongruence is, "your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear what you are saying." Research indicates that the non-verbal aspect may contribute up to 70% of the total message. The net result is that whilst your verbal message may be getting through, your non-verbal message definitely will. This means that the spoken word is either supported or countered by facial expressions, gestures, functional movements and posture. A critical non-verbal cue is eye contact. Although in many parts of Africa, not giving eye-contact is a sign of respect, for the most part, direct eye contact indicates confidence and clarity in delivering the message.
Effective leadership requires effective interpersonal communication. Practicing this kind of communication means being willing to review and assess the extent to which you as a leader are communicating to achieve a “duplication of ideas.” There is sufficient evidence that there is a causal link between organizational candor and performance.[vii] Put simply, this means that where leaders are open, honest and transparent in their communication style, there is an increased chance of followers not only being clear about what you are saying, but of their ability to act on your communication. This means more effective followers. So whilst we continue to negotiate the challenges of the electronic age, let’s make sure that our communication to our followers always facilitates an exchange of shared meaning.[viii]
Andy Brough is an organisational and leadership development consultant and communications consultant. He can be contacted on andyb[at]andrewbrough[dot]com
[i] Model based largely on the initial work of Shannon, Claude E. & Warren Weaver (1949): A mathematical model of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
[ii] Chandler, D. (n.d). The transmission model of communication. Retrieved September 1, 2009 from
[iii] Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall Jr., H. L., & Tretheway, A. (2007). Organizational communication (5th Ed.) Boston, MA: Bedford St Martins.
[iv] Rackham, N. (1972), Developing negotiating skills, Industrial and Commercial Training, 266-75.
[v] Rackham, N. (1987), Making major sales, Aldershot: Gower.
[vi] Calero, H.H. (2005). The power of non-verbal communication. How you act is more important than what you say. Aberdeen, WA: Silver Lakes.
[vii] O’Toole, J., & Bennis, W. (2009). What’s needed next? A culture of candor. Harvard Business Review, June, 54-62.
[viii] Brake, T. (1998). The Global leader. Critical factors for creating a world class organization. London: McGraw-Hill.