Most startup mentors tell me that the single biggest problem they have to deal with in 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, body language, and “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, where 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, no stereotyping, and first focus 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 a specific group, or experts, it becomes negative communication, with people reading 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. Add the problem of noise, external and internal, which can blank out whole messages. 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 due to company policy. This is readily recognized by most constituents, negates the message, and erodes 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. No questions does not always mean that everyone heard the message. How often do you ask for feedback to make sure your communication has been effective?