Sunday, January 28, 2007

One thing I've noticed about all the weblogs out there is a significant lack of content on certain topics. Management and dealing with management issues is one example. There are a few out there that are quite good, but it's not a common topic. Probably because it's not exactly exciting, geeky or all that interesting to the average person. Or maybe because managers are afraid to talk publicly about problems they run up against. Or because not many managers blog. Personally, I run across complex issues all the time, and I enjoy talking about them in an appropriate way. I think it makes me a better manager in the long run to hear what others have to say. Hence this weblog entry.

A while back I was meeting with one of the people I work with and discussing the variety of ways communication problems can drag an organization down. It was one of those typically generalized philosophical conversations, the kind I like to think of as learning moments. Some call them teaching moments, which is also accurate, but I like to remember I can (and better) learn while mentoring, too. It's a given that inefficiencies can make it difficult to get things done in business, and inefficiencies in communication can certainly have a significant impact. As we traded thoughts back and forth on the topic, I realized that my compadre was unawaredly mixing two different problems together, and classifying them as one. We stopped for a moment, and I explained to him what I see as the difference between communication and behavior problems. There is a fundamental and critical difference, I pointed out - one that is often overlooked and misunderstood.

We've all known people who say or do things that don't contribute in a positive way to an effective team or organization. Unfortunately we often describe such people as having "communication problems," when in fact what they exhibit is instead a complex set of behavior problems.

Because the two types of issues are fundamentally different (as are the respective solutions), a well-honed ability to recognize the difference between them is an valuable and important management trait for one who has the desire to make changes in this area.

A communication problem exists when there is a process gap or other barrier that makes it impossible to successfully communicate some critical information. For example, in the IT support world, we often wonder why users don't provide us with the information we need to help them. Instead they tell us a life story and pass on a lot of information that won't help us solve the problem, all while leaving out the critical nuggets of data. Then the IT employee wonders why and spends significant time chasing users down and trying to gather the missing details needed to work the issue.

But the communication problem in this case is not the lack of information provided by the customer. Rather it's the lack of a properly-defined process. I suggested, in our hypothetical conversation, that if an IT help desk employee has to regularly perform the same tasks and if the information necessary for success is challenging to gather from users, then the solution should be in doing something to ensure the proper information is collected and that the users know what's needed and expected. That's a communication process. And a well-defined communication process does a couple things: It sets clear, unambiguous expectations and provides a known mechanism to accomplish the activity it defines. It also needs to be reasonable and usable, to be fully successful. Perhaps the IT help desk would deploy a standard form, for example, which collects all of the information required to resolve a class of issue. At that point, once the user population has been made aware of the form and process, it is reasonable to expect the users to take advantage of the tools and instructions provided.

Now, if our information communication process is in place and communicated effectively and sufficiently, yet the people to whom the process applies neglect to do their part, we no longer have a communication problem. At that point, we have graduated to a more complicated class of issue: The behavior problem.

Behavior problems are individual in nature, and are more closely related to personality and situational issues. They're not typically resolvable with processes. Instead, they require individual guidance and potentially some form of discipline. Now, the term "discipline" here does not have to be a negative word. Rather, I use it in the context of behavior and performance management. And what works for one won't always work for the rest. This is the area where the professional manager earns his or her stripes: Working with people to change default behaviors in situations where the behavior cannot work. It's hard work.

Perhaps the most useful set of terms we can keep in mind when it comes to defining the issue and a solution: Communication Management and Behavior Management. Understanding these and knowing the differences are what we really need to be concerned about. That and the fact that even with a good communication method in place, it still takes the people and personalities that can and will work within any processes established to be successful.

What kinds of behavior problems are often confused with communication issues? Well, there's the "that's not what I want" class of problems. And then there's the "I didn't think of it so I can't get behind it" philosophy. Or the "that doesn't apply to me because I decided I didn't want it to" issue. Often behavior problems involve some form or another of what I refer to as "terminal uniqueness" - People who believe that they are different and their jobs, situations, wants, needs, requirements and desires are completely different than those of anyone else, and  that therefore nobody else can possibly understand or make decisions that might affect whatever they're focused on. And there are, of course, many more.

Anyhow, I have a variety of stories from my own management experience (both as related to me personally and with others) that illustrate this point, but one person's examples only help to define the situation in a self-limiting form. Do you have examples of your own experiences where the cliche "communication problem" term has been applied, but in reality the issue was people not playing nice? How do you deal with those situations and people?

And I should finish up by pointing out that I am far from perfect in this area. None of us are. I've not been the easiest person to manage at times over the years, to be sure. But a good healthy conversation helps us all to be aware of what's happening around us and within us, and allows us to learn and grow. So, let's converse.

What do you think?

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Management | Random Stuff
Sunday, January 28, 2007 1:59:18 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Wednesday, May 16, 2007 5:18:51 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Greg, I found this page researching a topic for a speech. I have a different perspective on behavioral communication. I have found that people communicate more truthfully in their actions than in their words. An employee, not totally committed to his work, unhappy about an assignment, displeased with his boss or coworker will communicate it clearly in his behavior. Behaviors such as frequent tardiness, extended breaks, sloppy work, diminishing work production, etc. all reflect displeasure somewhere. Few managers are trained to read the behavior and even fewer learn how to address it. The evidence is seen in very high turnover, lack of corporate loyalty, reduced profits. Managers have another communication problem. The problem that causes people to leave jobs, and causes bosses to fire people. That is how to effectively address a behavioral problem to gain a positive outcome. Seems impossible, I know, but in fact it is key to building a team, improving retention and raising profits. I have more to share but do not have time right now. Let me know your thoughts. H
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