Why You Have to Over-Communicate With Your Staff

Several times recently, in different conversations with different clients (and friends), I’ve made the same comment that I think you’ll want to remember and possibly put up on your wall so you never forget.

“In the absence of information, most people fill in the blanks … and usually with negative assumptions.”

As a leader, your life is full. You’re in a ton of meetings with lots of different people and since you’re in all those meetings, the last thing you’re thinking about is what other people know or don’t know. Why? Because you know what you need to know and, frankly, you’re the boss.

However, you also know what it feels like to be kept out of the loop. Not only is it not fun, it can lead to a lot of wasted (and wrong) assumptions.

For example, let’s say George has been coming to the office late and leaving early. He’s not been himself. He doesn’t seem as engaged as he used to be. He seems a little secretive. He hasn’t been dropping by your office like he used to, etc. What are you thinking?

Is George looking for a new job? Is he slacking on his job, trading in on his old reputation? Is he drinking or doing drugs? Is he having trouble in his marriage? Is he having an affair? Is he suffering from a medical problem/disease? Is he engaged in a major conflict with someone in our office? Is he suffering from depression? What’s going on with George?

The answer is, “We don’t know because we’re not George.” Until George speaks up and says, “My mother was just diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and has been given less than a month to live,” we don’t know. He’s not looking for a new job. He’s not having an affair. He’s not drinking too much. He’s not intentionally letting balls drop at work, etc. He’s just dealing with the shock of losing his mother. Think of all that lost time and all those wrong assumptions (note: not one of them was positive).

Remember …”In the absence of information, most people (which includes you and me) fill in the blanks … and usually with negative assumptions.”

So, how do you get out of this conundrum? Well, here are a few ideas.

I. Remember That Everyone On Your Team Doesn’t Have Access to All the Information You Have

One of the main reasons why this problem exists is because we often fail to remember that everyone we lead doesn’t have the same access to the same information we do. They don’t sit in the same meetings we do. They don’t have the same conversations we do. They don’t think about the same things we do. They don’t have access to all the same information that we do, etc. And that’s the problem.

If you haven’t watched my video on leading change and the problem with tappers and listeners, you’ll want to. It’s the first video on my speaking samples video. But the bottom line of the story is that “Once you know something, it’s difficult to ever remember what it was like to not know that thing.”

So, unless you’re intentionally thinking, “My people don’t have access to all the information I do,” you’ll always tend to under-communicate. Why? Because it’s hard to remember that they don’t know what we know.

For example, let’s say that cash is a little tight and you let Mary go. Because of HR issues, you don’t tell any of your staff why Mary was let go (which was because you discovered that Mary had been sneaking out of work, drinking and falsifying her sales reports). For the past month you’ve been engaged in an “investigation.” You’ve had six meetings with key players. You’ve talked with your HR people. And you’ve talked with Mary on multiple occasions. In your mind, it’s obvious why you let Mary go.

However, to the people who weren’t part of this process, Mary has been with your company for five years. She’s won sales awards. She’s dearly loved. And now that cash is tight, she’s gone. What are they thinking?  Exactly. “Cash is tight, who’s going to be next? If they let Mary go, and she’s won awards, I could be next!”

In other words, everyday, you have to remember that the members of your team do not have access to all the information you do. That doesn’t mean you have the freedom to share it, it simply means that you have to remember that what you know is rarely common knowledge.

II. Remember That Everyone Forgets

Another one of the more common leadership communication issues that frequently plagues a lot of  leaders is that they tend to think that once they’ve communicated something, everyone present heard it and will remember it—two very bad assumptions.

Even worse you know that both of those are wrong. You know that just because someone has said something in your presence doesn’t mean that you’ve heard it (anyone who’s been married or in a significant relationship knows that to be true :-). And how many things have we “heard” that we didn’t remember a few hours or days afterward, let alone weeks or months.

So, why do we tend to assume that once we’ve said something ONCE as the boss/leader, that everyone with whom we’ve communicated both a. heard it and b. remembers it? Makes no sense. Everyone forgets. In the speaking world, there’s a frequently bandied around stat that within 48 hours, those who’ve listened to your message/talk will forget 95% of what you said (even worse, they almost always remember the wrong 5% :-).

Moreover, there’s another adage in marketing that says that for every time someone sends out a message, two out of three times the person they intended to hear it will miss it.

In other words, don’t worry about over-communicating. The best communicators and leaders stay on point and keep on point over long periods of time because they know that everyone forgets (and frequently, they don’t even receive the message).

So until your people start mimicking you, assume you haven’t communicated enough. And even then, you should still stay on point. Life happens. People forget. So say it again!

III. Remember That Alignment And Focus Are Rare

While you and I like to think that the “world” is conspiring for us, the reality is that it’s usually conspiring against us. Everyone has their own agenda, including your employees (plus their families, your competitors, your prospects and customers, your elected officials, etc.). Each leader in your company. Each department. Each employee. They all have their own agendas.

And unless someone stands up and says, “This is where we’re going” and enforces alignment and focus toward that preferred future destination, everyone on your team will head in the way that best suits their own self-interest.

For example, if George in IT wants to focus on installing a new security protocol, and Angela in marketing wants to focus on small businesses, and Frank in sales wants to focus on mid-market companies, while Anik in accounting wants to focus on a new reimbursement policy and Juliet in HR wants to review and update everyone’s job description, you’ve got a problem. Everyone is going in their own direction.

Yes, they were all at the annual planning meeting. And yes, they’ve all created plans for this year. But unless someone (i.e. You) stands up and says, “This is what we agreed to. This is where wer’re going …” everyone will revert back to their own personal preferences and your business will head in five (or 15 or 50) different directions.

Every business (or organization) needs someone at the top continually over-communicating what’s important so that there is a clarity of purpose, focus and everything is in alignment.

So, if you want to build a bigger, better, faster and more profitable business, make sure you over-communicate all the time. Give your people the information that you know, that they don’t. Refuse to trust their memories (they all forget). And never assume that saying something once will keep everyone on your team in alignment (it won’t).Instead, over-communicate. Keep everyone in the loop. And don’t allow your people to fill in the blanks with bad assumptions. Remember,

“In the absence of information, most people fill in the blanks … and usually with negative assumptions.”

So, what do you need to communicate today?

To your accelerated success!

P.S. Do you have some other ideas as to why we as leaders tend to under-communicate? Or some guidelines you follow that help you to over-communicate. If so, make sure you share them in the comments section below (or if you’re reading this by email or RSS, make sure you click here >> to add your comments).

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