Your People Don’t Know What You Know—And It’s Costing You

“Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication”  – Coach Mike Krzyzewski

During World War II, militaries began relying on two-way radio technology to communicate more effectively across land, sea, and air. But the radios were often unreliable and difficult to hear, so shorthand language was devised to increase reliability and understanding.

This is how the term “Roger Wilco” originated. It’s shorthand for, “I’ve received your message, I understand it, and I will comply with it.” The phrase became a way for pilots and ground troops to quickly affirm important instructions and make more rapid decisions when lives were at stake.

While I hope lives aren’t at stake as you operate your business, ensuring your messages are understood is just as important whether by phone, Zoom, or in person as it is on the battlefield. Yet, communication is the number one blindspot and weakness I encounter while coaching business leaders. Even worse, many leaders lament that their people don’t make the “right” decisions often enough which, in fact, is a direct consequence of their own shortcomings as communicators.

Leaders often under communicate because communication isn’t a priority to them (it should be) or because they think something is so obvious (to them) they assume it doesn’t need stating. In other instances, leaders think they’ll appear foolish repeating themselves to their team.

A factor contributing to these situations is the cognitive bias known as “the curse of knowledge.” This bias is in full effect when we (often unconsciously) presume others possess the same knowledge, outlook, and background we do. As a result, we overestimate how much others grasp or relate to our thoughts and feelings. Here’s the thing: More often than not, they don’t have the same information or context we do!

If you’ve ever had a friend tell you a story that didn’t make sense because they omitted a critical detail, you’ve experienced the curse of knowledge firsthand. In a social situation, an omission like this isn’t a big deal. You would simply ask your friend to back up and explain the part of the story you didn’t understand. In a business context, though, nobody’s going to tell the CEO, department head, or team leader in front of a room full of people what they just said doesn’t make sense.

This is why every leader must be ever conscious that there’s a sizable gap between what’s in their head and what’s in everyone else’s. Your job as a responsible communicator is to build a bridge, meet them where they are, and then lead them across it so that they share the information and context you possess at any given moment. In other words, what’s on your mind should be on their minds too.

The question is: How do you make that happen?

Here are five ways:

1.  Recurring Meeting Cadence

Information is the lifeblood of every firm. The steady, predictable heartbeat that pumps life throughout is your communication rhythm—daily, weekly, and monthly meetings.

I recently met with a client who was struggling to make his executive team’s daily huddles work. “Nobody can think of what to say in the huddle,” he lamented.

Since the daily huddle’s purpose is synchronization, I coached this executive team to think about the information they possessed that would be helpful for others on their team to know. I suggested that they prepare for their huddle by asking themselves, “What do I know that my team NEEDS to know?” After all, that’s the definition of synchronizing—to align understanding and get on the same page.

Synchronization items for your daily huddle can be personal, cultural, and business, client, or supplier related. Nothing is off limits as you and your team strive to share information and synchronize.

Other meeting rhythms are Weekly, Monthly, and Quarterly (WMQ) and focus more on assessing results, troubleshooting, problem solving, brainstorming, debating, planning, and overall team cohesion. The challenge for most teams here is articulating the right topics to discuss and clarifying the intended outcome of the conversation. Is your team engaging in the right conversations during your WMQ meetings?

To make this easier, I have my coaching clients use an IDS framework to conduct their WMQ meetings, where they Identify, Discuss, and Solve issues at hand. Not all items that are identified are discussed, and not all items that are discussed are solved during the meeting. This is okay, because naming the “elephant in the room” is often equally as important as solving it.

And remember: Just because YOU can see the elephant doesn’t mean anyone else does!

2. Passive Communication Mechanisms

Not all communication has to be verbal. In fact, it shouldn’t be!

Relying purely on speaking or email can become exhausting for both you AND your team. Use more passive methods to share and reinforce the information in your head as well.

For instance, several of my clients use computer screensavers and laminated reference cards on conference tables that list their firm’s core values, purpose, and priorities. Others adorn their hallways and meeting rooms with posters or murals sharing important information. Artifacts—like stress balls or desk stationary—with, for example,  your firm’s brand promise emblazoned on them might also serve as constant visual reminders of what’s important.

These passive methods are quite effective because they’re always in plain sight and being absorbed by the people who view them. Just remember that passive communication mechanisms augment the other things you’re doing to share what’s in your head. They are NOT a stand-alone solution!

3. Repeatable Processes to Reinforce Most Important Things

This is another method that doesn’t require you to constantly expend energy. Repeatable processes can also reinforce the information your team needs to know.

For instance, several of my clients have a rule that any time an internal meeting has more than eight attendees, they must begin by reciting their company’s strategic cascade: core purpose, core values, three-year objectives, and current year priorities.

The process takes all of two minutes, constantly reinforcing what matters most to the organization and ensuring top-of-mind alignment during the meetings that follow.

What simple, repeatable process can you implement firmwide to reinforce what matters most?

4. The Drive-By

A “drive-by” is when you use a casual conversation, perhaps while passing someone in the hallway, as an opportunity to share what’s in your head with others. You can open the dialog with a statement like “I’ve been thinking a lot about…”, or you can ask a simple question.

For example, you might ask an employee to state your company’s Core Purpose while you’re both waiting for the morning coffee to finish brewing. If they know the answer, that’s great! But if they don’t, that’s okay too, because it presents an opening to make a friendly agreement. You could say something like: “Can we make a deal? The next time I ask you to recite our Core Purpose, I need you to have the answer. Will you have the answer for me the next time I ask you?”

There’s no brow-beating, no punishment, just an expectation that the employee internalizes whatever it is you’ve asked of them. It’s another mechanism to help transplant what’s in your head into theirs.

5. One-to-Many Communication

While one-on-one meetings and drive bys are excellent means to convey information, they’re not particularly scalable for senior leaders in large firms. If scale is an obstacle for you to communicate effectively, augment your more intimate conversations with one-to-many communication tools such as newsletters or personal video updates.

Consider the one-to-many construct your version of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats,” in which he delivered a regular evening radio broadcast to the American public. Roosevelt conducted these mostly during the height of the Great Depression and during the early years of World War II—times when the public required reassurance and leadership.

The communication doesn’t need to be “commander-in-chief worthy,” though.

For example, one of my CEO clients sends a video update to his entire company via Slack every week. It’s never rigid or formal, just a short, three-minute video where he talks about what’s been on his mind. Sometimes it’s about something that caught his attention that week, an interesting person he met, or an important milestone in the business. Those weekly videos also give the CEO a public platform to recognize deserving employees who did a particularly good job or helped secure a new client.

It’s a wonderful tool to share what’s on your mind with your team and to get more people thinking more like you over time. You’ll be surprised how grateful your staff will be to hear from you regularly in a one-to-many format!

Conclusion

“Do not assume the orderly soldiers standing before you fully comprehend the larger mission and why their role matters.” – James Stavridis

Used regularly and in balance, these five communication methods will improve the alignment of your team and their understanding of your thoughts, ideas, and priorities. But a word of caution as you begin to deploy them:

As a leader, you’re likely accustomed to operating at a strategic level. But the language and terms of communication at 30,000 feet differ from the language and terms those with boots on the ground understand. Be aware of this—and be prepared to translate.

Here’s a useful rule of thumb: If you can’t explain any element of your plan, strategy, or business and its operations to the least-educated, lowest salaried position in your firm, then you don’t understand it well enough yourself. In other words, if you speak French and your team speaks Chinese, it’s not their problem to understand you—it’s YOURS. You have to meet people where they are and bring them to where you want them to be.

This is difficult for many leaders to identify and improve because it’s rare they receive meaningful feedback about their communication shortcomings. The greater the power gradient—that is, the further up the organizational ladder you are from your audience—the less likely people are to question you.

Simplify your message so it can be easily understood by everyone, then use the five communication methods described here to get the job done constantly and consistently over time.

In short order, you’ll build the bridge, closing the gap between the information in your head and the information possessed by your team. You’ll also hear a resounding “Roger Wilco” much more often.

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