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In early September, a colleague and I checked into a hotel in Tokyo and were given rooms on the 29th floor. We headed for the elevators – there were 12 of them, in three sets of four that would get us up to our rooms. When we pressed the UP button for an elevator, immediately one of the lights in front of an elevator to our right turned on. Expectantly we stood in front of it, waiting for the doors to open. A few minutes later, the light that had been steadily lit up, began blinking and the door opened. Later the same evening we went through the same process on our way DOWN to the lobby — press the DN button, immediately one of the four elevator indicator lights come on, soon the light blinks and the elevator door opens. It is then we figured out that the first time the light comes on, it indicated which elevator was coming for us and once the elevator got to our floor, it would blink to indicate its actual arrival.

As managers we could do well to emulate the designer of this elevator system, namely “share a fact the moment we know it” — which elevator is going to come up; and “continue to share as and when more information becomes available” — once the elevator is there, notify its arrival explicitly. It sounds so simple yet our own behaviour every day belies this very simplicity.

Communication is learned behaviour
Many of our organisations are plagued by poor communication. All the technology we have at our disposal, often no further than our fingertips, only seems to add to the problem. If you have at times, felt that the only sharing in your organisation seems to be unabashedly flaming e-mails, you are not alone. What makes it so hard to follow this simple dictum to share? Why do reasonable people, who complain that they do not get the information they need, turn around and act in an opaque manner?

Simply put, communication within an organisation is learned behaviour. Regardless of individual idiosyncrasies or insecurities, employees are quick learners with regards to acceptable corporate behaviour. They pick up on cues — when more than one e-mail goes unanswered or every e-mail discussing the smallest technical problem in their department is copied to 20 other people – most of whom they have not met. When a co-worker, who seemed either comatose or on sabbatical, responds with alacrity to the same question from a vice-president, the message is loud and clear on what works and how they need to act to get things done.

Review communication behaviour
What can be learnt of course can be unlearnt, if not always easily, as our spouses will vouch. As individuals, managers and leaders we can effect change in our organisations’ communication process through deliberate actions. Begin with your immediate team – your manager, your staff and your colleagues. Are you sharing everything they need to know, not just what you feel needs to be shared? Are you doing it in a succinct and clear fashion? Are you doing it in a timely manner – with adequate advance notice for things that need preparation or the earliest possible opportunity after a relevant event? Are you sending emails when a face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate? Are you dealing with things verbally which are better put in writing?

A rule to live by
Ask yourself would I or someone else be surprised later, if I did not share this information and share it NOW? Would I have liked to have known this sooner or in private, or with more context?

A simple rule that covers all of these and hundred other possible communication pitfalls is “No surprises!”

When in doubt, communicate early and often!

Communication as with most things in life, needs moderation. There will certainly be times when discretion will be the better part of valour and less communication may be more! Go forth and communicate!

This article was first published in the Business Line in October 15, 2007