Communication: the hard truth about this soft skill

Board & management papers

5 min read

Most of us have some first-hand experience of the dysfunction that occurs when business communication is poor. Managers aren’t clear about who needs to do what and when. Leaders either don’t or can’t set out their vision, let alone align people behind it. Departments pull in different directions, whether intentionally or not.

It illustrates why, as Bill Gates described it, communication is the nervous system of organisations, and the basis for their collective intelligence. Without it, we’re not an organisation at all; just a set of individuals sharing a payroll.

We’ll never be able to put a definitive monetary cost on poor communication, but there are some indicators: the 2.8 hours a week the average employee spends dealing with (largely unnecessary) conflict; the 67% of workers who say unproductive meetings prevent them doing their jobs properly; the $12,506 per employee American businesses waste annually on misunderstandings.

So, the question is: if communication is so important, why are we so bad at it?

The communication gap

Fundamentally, companies struggle because they do not make communication a priority — to the extent that if you bring up business communication capabilities, many will assume you’re talking about the calibre of their intranet.

Communication is seen as a “soft” skill, a word choice that implies it is less important than, say, financial analysis. Firms promote people for their hard skills, even when they lack the ability to run a meeting, read a room, or write an unambiguous email. Then, they get surprised when decisions are made without the proper information or discussion, or when the CEO’s top-notch speeches and winning personality somehow don’t cut through.

“Firms promote people for their hard skills, even when they lack the ability to run a meeting, read a room, or write an unambiguous email. Then, they get surprised when decisions are made without the proper information or discussion.”

That’s if they recognise that poor communication is a problem at all, which often doesn’t happen because it’s a hard thing to measure.

I may know what I wanted to say and think I said it well, but have you come away with the message I intended? Would that even count as effective communication, if my message was flawed to begin with yet went unchallenged? How can I tell whether information is reaching the top if I didn’t know it existed in the first place?

It’s no wonder organisation-wide communication rarely gets seen as the strategic capability that it is. Yet, any effort to improve that capability must begin with the acknowledgment that it matters and that it can be systematically improved.

Where to start

Once the importance of communication is agreed on, all sorts of practical improvements become possible.

We can make soft skills a more important part of the hiring and promotion process, and invest more in related training.

We can start measuring the quality of information flow by looking for evidence of miscommunication and also proactively testing for it.

Are people all singing from the same hymnbook, wherever they are? If asked (anonymously), do they feel listened to, and do they have a clear understanding of what they are required to do and why?

There are other best practices that can be deployed. For example, most of us know that meetings are more effective with a chair who keeps it to a clear agenda, creates a sense of psychological safety for participants, and ensures all voices get heard to prevent groupthink setting in.

We probably also know that meetings have clearer outcomes when minutes are taken, next steps are agreed upon, and a summary is shared afterwards. But do we give much thought to the quality of the management or board reports that frame what will get discussed in the room? Or to how the choice and number of people we invite can also affect the quality of that discussion (if there are more than eight people in the room, there may be a problem).


Ask yourself:

  • Are we actively looking for good communicators when hiring? Are we promoting those who communicate best, and are we training those who aren’t?
  • Is everyone in the organisation clear on what the overarching goals are? Are we regularly surveying our people to check?
  • Do all our meetings follow best practice? Are they chaired and limited to no more than a few people? Is a clear agenda sent in advance, and a summary with action points sent afterwards?
  • Is the information we share helping move the needle? Do all our reports follow a structure that ensures they build trust, surface insight that’s easy to follow, and make their key messages crystal clear?

Some businesses take more exotic approaches to improving the quality of their communication. Tech firm Qualtrics (owned by SAP) adopted a radical approach to transparency, allowing any employee to see (almost) any information, thereby theoretically improving the flow of ideas through the business.

Amazon banned PowerPoint presentations in meetings, insisting instead that executives share information or make proposals through written memos of no more than six pages.

The practice began with Jeff Bezos’s objection that slide decks — and bullet points, which are also banned — encourage lazy thinking and prioritise style over substance. Having to write in continuous text with a narrative structure forces people to clarify their ideas, prioritising them and revealing the assumptions behind them.

“Having to write in continuous text with a narrative structure forces people to clarify their ideas, prioritising them and revealing the assumptions behind them.”

It’s an approach that shows nicely how communication isn’t just about the transmission of information from one place to another, but a fundamental part of our ability as groups to think critically, achieve alignment, and inspire each other to action.

This last point is particularly important for leaders. It’s easy to dismiss form, style, and delivery as superficial next to the content of the message, and it certainly can’t make up for a lack of substance, but at the same time a great message achieves nothing if no one responds to it.

For full impact, leaders within the organisation, whether they have a senior title or not, need to capture the imagination of employees, making them believe that hard things are possible and motivating them to get moving.

It may not always be straightforward, but once recognised as a strategic capability worth investing in, communication can become an indispensable source of strength to the organisation, allowing it to spot opportunities, devise intelligent strategies and inspire people to execute them more effectively.

Then with any luck the only time we’ll hear of confusion and crossed purposes at work will be when we’re sharing horror stories of the bad old days, rather than lamenting last week’s management meeting.

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