Effective Team Communication: What vs Why

AT FIRST GLANCE, exchanging information, meaning, and messages among team members appears deceptively simple. After all, you know each other and share common goals. Unfortunately, communication and misunderstanding continue. Most of us are poor listeners who quickly jump to assumptions and immediately judge another’s message, rather than concentrating on the content. Effective communication takes analysis.

Driven to quickly get to the heart of the matter relies on the assumption that we can effectively multi-task or fill in the blanks. Too often these hasty conclusions depend on a personal motivational filter instead of an open and rational analysis. We ascribe personal agendas almost immediately analyzing why something is being shared rather than concentrating on what is being said.

While working as a consultant with an executive team, this predisposition to detour into personal conclusions almost derailed a new team. A new externally hired CEO introduced a new strategic vision for the firm, which failed to win support from any of his staff. Knowing that many on his staff had applied for his position, the CEO attributed the opposition to jealousy or collusion. He had focused on why they resisted instead of what the facts and trends caused their objections.

During a strategy meeting, it became clear that the CEO and his staff were talking past each other.  The staff viewed the new direction as rejection of current practices and an effort to make his mark. When no one explored what drove the disparate conclusions, positions hardened and tempers flared. Each side assumed that they were “right” and the other party was being unreasonable and/or calculating.

As an outsider, I probed for the rationale behind each position. The CEO explained that the Board had charged him with the goal of growing the business through rapid expansion. In contrast, the staff wanted to focus on quality and process improvement in response to increasing complaints from key customer accounts. Once the CEO, unaware of these problems, listened carefully to the staff’s position he recognized that retaining current customers was essential and would serve as the foundation for expansion. As facts and analysis replaced labels and assumptions a strategy was crafted to include both goals. Quality and tactical improvements would be tackled first and then an expansion strategy would be launched.

Every organization and most teams have communication “problems” but they can be kept manageable if we start with an analysis of what drove a recommendation rather than trying to decode why an idea was being advanced. If your team is struggling with effective communication, consider:

  • Probing the basis behind proposals by asking what questions instead of why questions
  • Detecting what business priority currently drives decision making
  • Separating idea generation and analysis from the evaluation process
  • Demonstrating respect by actively listening without interruptions but with time limits
  • Recognizing plans are subject to change as circumstance shift which requires us to be agile and proactive
  • Reducing power or title difference through a roundtable or having the leader withhold comments until the end.

To modify one of Stephen Covey’s seven basic habits, when you truly want effective communication “seek to understand what is being said before trying to understand why it is being said.” It builds teamwork and excellence.

Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitthttp://www.enterprisemgt.com
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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