Many startup mentors say that the single biggest problem they have when dealing with small companies is the lack of open, honest and effective communication, both from the top-down and from the bottom-up. Some entrepreneurs forget that talking is not communicating. Fortunately, these skills can be learned, and the barriers to communication can be overcome one by one.
Founders have to communicate their ideas and products to investors, business partners and the rest of the team. Then hopefully come customers, distribution channels, and going public or merging with an attractive buy-out candidate. Communication is not just talking, but also listening, writing and communicating with body language. As it goes, “actions speak louder than words.”
According to a new management guide by Professor Derek Torrington, Managing to Manage: The Essential Guide to People Management, it is the listener who determines the extent to which a message is understood, and that is shaped largely by their own experience and background. From an entrepreneur perspective, here are the understanding barrier categories:
- Unclear frame of reference. Whenever you discuss any startup matter, the receivers will view it from their particular frame of reference, including their values, their priorities and their background. The responsibility is on you, the entrepreneur, to decipher the receiver reference and do the “translation” of your message to them.
- Stereotyping and biases. This is the other end of the spectrum, when the entrepreneur defaults to an extreme extrapolation of the listener reference base. Common problem stereotypes relate to age constraints, gender roles and cultural performance implications. Effective communication requires compensating for language barriers, not stereotyping, and focusing on performance here and now.
- Cognitive dissonance. Psychologists use this term to describe the genuine difficulty the people have in understanding, remembering and taking action on inputs that they find irreconcilable with the current reality or with strong existing beliefs. The message heard may be unintentionally distorted, and you must repeat and rephrase often to be effective.
- Failure to build relationships. When people are listening to someone with confidence and trust, there is a predisposition to hear the message and agree. On the other hand, if the source is unknown or un-trusted, the message may be ignored or minimized. The solution is to work on relationships first, before attempting persuasive communication.
- Technical semantics and jargon. Jargon only has meaning if the symbols are already understood. If an abbreviation or phrase is not commonly used outside of a specific group of experts, it becomes negative communication, and people may read it as presumptive, insulting or an attempt to deceive. The remedy is to use clear and concise language.
- Not paying attention and forgetting. We all have the human predilection to be selective in attention. Attention spans seem to be getting steadily shorter. Pick the right time and place for each message type to maximize attention and retention.
- Information withheld. Sometimes an entrepreneur or executive tries to communicate without full disclosure, perhaps to minimize impact, or or to comply with company policies. This is readily recognized by most constituents, negating the message and eroding trust. In startups, the best policy is transparent, honest disclosure across all levels of the team.
It’s important to remember that communication only happens when the other person really hears what you mean to say. It’s not a one-way street, and there are often barriers on both sides. To be successful, the entrepreneur has the responsibility of overcoming all of these barriers to make the interaction effective. The alternative is a lose-lose situation for both sides.
A climate of open, two-way communication is also the only way to ensure that those who do not understand feel free to ask for clarification. The listener having no questions does not always mean that they heard the message. How often do you ask for feedback to make sure your communication has been effective?
Image credit: CC by Steve Jurvetson