Communication makes us lazy

First published in the HR Director on 9 May and Insights (Chartered Management Institute) 11 May 2017

Our obsession with well-calculated and polished communications is nuts. We have conflated the ability to communicate well with the ability to do a good job. And it’s wrong. It is driving a lazy approach to understanding that is costing us all access to a wealth of talent and ability. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me explain what I mean with some examples.

I’ll be honest, I only approached Paulus Quiros, the custom bicycle builders based in Swansea, after conversations with several other bicycle manufacturers had left me somewhat underwhelmed. The Paulus Quiros website did little to inspire me; the pictures weren’t great, the information was limited and the layout felt dated, but I was running out of options. I wanted to find a bike frame builder who really understood the engineering underpinning bike design and could combine this expertise with an open mind to work with me on the type of bike I wanted. What has since followed has been one of the most insightful, rewarding, engaging and thoughtful customer experiences I have ever had and has given me much food for thought. But I was so very close to walking on by based on the website experience.

I had a similar experience when searching for luggage bags for my bike.  The Buggy Bags website lacks engagement to say the least, but having had a disappointing experience with another well-known company, I approached them to see what they could do. Again, the experience was engaging, thoughtful, challenging and ultimately rewarding. But had I not had the poor experience with one of the market leaders, I would never have approached them.

The penny dropped when a friend was complaining about how the organisation she worked for expected her to be something she simply was not. Whilst very capable at what she does, being an inspiring and decisive communicator is not how she does things. Reflective, thoughtful, quiet and considered are far better descriptors. I pondered on why it was so important that she became the sort of communicator others wanted her to be. Gut feel said it was wrong.

It is uncomfortably easy to dismiss these people as not worthy of attention, simply because the initial experience does not live up to the slick and polished presentation we have come to expect. Getting the best from all three has required time and effort on my part to learn and understand who they are and what they can do. It’s like opening an uninspiring door of a building to find a beautiful cathedral inside; you have to be curious enough in the first instance to turn the handle. Once inside, you need to take the time to walk down the knave and in and out of all the chapels to appreciate the depth and quality of everything that lies within. It’s all too easy though to walk on by and never open that door.

In business, management and leadership programmes focus on the importance of communication: how to inspire others, how to create compelling visions that employees will find engaging and how to deliver the type of ‘stump speech’ that puts fire in the belly. Managers and leaders are taught how to have ‘performance conversations’ in which they explore how their employees can deliver more value. But what we don’t do is spend time learning how to be more curious and appreciative of what others do. We neglect the starting position that accepts people as they are and explores what we need to do to get the best from them, without the expectation that they need to fit in to what typically is thought of as the ideal.

But this is not about accepting mediocrity; imagine a scale of -5 to +5. The organisations and people I have described would probably score -3 or -4 for the outward expression of their capabilities. If we trained them well and invested significant effort, we might improve that score to -1 or even 0. But it would be a lot of effort to get them to a place that is still some distance from those who would score +4 or +5. However, if they invested that same effort improving where they add value the best, such as their engineering brilliance, their manufacturing know-how, or their process expertise, then the value they can offer would be substantially greater. I know where I would rather they spend their time. But this places a requirement on us to learn what work we must do to extract the best value from them.

Working with these people has fundamentally changed my approach to sourcing products and services. I now seek out the uninspiring doorway and turn the handle. I engage in conversations, recognising I may need to put some work into understanding what they do and how they do it. Yes, it’s much harder work, and yes, there are people who are neither good communicators, nor have much to offer, but if my experiences are anything to go by so far, don’t be put off by first impressions; there is an enormous wealth of talent that’s missed simply because branding is not their thing.

Dominic Irvine © 2017