Operator, can you help me place this call

I’ve always been pretty fascinated by the allegory within the Genesis story the Tower of Babel, particularly the confusion/division of human language.

I think it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by the human challenge of communication – and why something so seemingly simple and so core to the human experience, seem so incredibly difficult. Especially in the workplace.

I have never researched or studied much in the way of what scholars have to say about the subject – or business experts, I’ve just observed, contemplated, praised, opined, complained about the nature of communication of groups and larger organizations that I’ve been in.

Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of had what everyone terms a “communication problem” of some kind. Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of has had a situation where they acknowledge the problems/challenges/opportunities – and they’ll talk about working on it, doubling efforts, forming focus groups, task forces, tiger teams, etc. to study the problem, make recommendations, write reports whatever. And sometimes it changes, but normally it doesn’t. It’s just an endemic thing that happens with groups and communication.

I’d like to tell you I know how to solve communication problems in organizations. That I know some fundamental secrets to getting information flowing. I’d like to tell you, but I can’t – because honestly I haven’t the faintest clue how you solve problems with two different people walking away from a conversation with two completely different interpretations of what just was said. I don’t have the faintest clue about how you solve the “signal degradation” as the report of a conversation goes from person to person to person. Or the problem of custom vocabularies between teams and the use of the same words that mean different things. Or issues of pride and fear, where people will just stay quiet on unclear points to avoid looking like they don’t know things. Or any of the dozens of other communication challenges between folks. I know how it happens, I usually recognize it. But I can’t solve it, or tell you how. (and frankly the people that tell you they can are delusional at best, liars at worst). At best, there are mitigation strategies, but there’s not much in the way of solutions. It’s a human thing. It’s why every culture has some variant of a “Tower of Babel.”

I can tell you though, that if you can’t even get to those problems, you can’t get through those problems. If you aren’t talking in the first place, you can’t even begin to have all those vocabulary and interpretation issues.

I do have one secret. One management-consulting-like little mantra that gets to the heart of at least one of the fundamental problems. Of course it’s an over simplification of a complex problem. But that’s how we roll in the workplace.

Here’s the personal form:

Ask Questions, Give Answers

Here’s one for you leaders:

Expect Questions, Expect Answers

Here’s really what it boils down to:

Never leave a question unanswered.

Here’s an expanded version of the above:

Never, ever, ever, ever leave a question unanswered. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t give a flying damn how stupid the question is. I don’t care how many times it has been asked. I don’t care how many times it has been asked by the same person. I don’t care how much it ticks you off that you are being questioned. Go ahead and send the missive around to your peers that “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT QUESTION WAS ASKED AGAIN” Just answer the damn question. Period. End of Story. (p.s. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. “Because I said so” is not. Unless the questioner is 5 years old and only if they are asking why they can’t go to chuck-e-cheese for dinner for the 4th night in a row.)

Pretty much every successful communication exchange is about a question and an answer. But it’s not going to be successful if the question isn’t asked. And it’s sure not going to be successful if the answer isn’t given. I have seen over and over and over again that the questions don’t get asked. Or when they do, the questions are ignored. And worse, the questioner is treated like a pariah, and the flipside, the answer isn’t heard, or respected.

If your first response to all this is that I’m over-simplifying the issue – you’re right. And if you know me, I’m sure you can point out multiple times with me where I get annoyed as hell about being asked, or I give some gruff response about looking it up yourself. “Black” said the pot to the kettle.

But I do hope that you’ll have to look pretty hard for a time when I was responsible for being the person that gave the answer, that I didn’t give an answer (and in the process answered 50 other questions that you never had) And if I didn’t, or didn’t for a long time, where I didn’t apologize profusely for not doing so. It’s just something that’s pretty important to me, and it’s something I’ve found to be successful for making sure information is out there.

There’s a lot of other things you might be thinking. One I’ve run into a lot with leaders is that you might be thinking to yourself about that guy that you have in the group over in the corner, that you are completely afraid of your boss’s boss’s boss walking in because he’s going to ask some embarrassing question about some little minute detail that you think is too trivial to be asked. In that case you have a problem. No, not in your group. You have a problem. Your boss’s boss’s boss should know how to deal. And if they have a clue – they’ll say “I don’t know. But that’s a good question, I’ll get back to you on that, or make sure that someone does”

I’m not going to say that that you won’t have someone that does that. Especially if you are encouraging questions in your team. And you yourself are giving answers and asking questions. That’s life. There are ways to deal with that. But ignoring it isn’t one of them. When the answers stop, the questions stop, and when both stop, communication stops. And that’s the problem.

I’m not going to say that this isn’t a hard and time consuming thing to do. Answering some of the questions will take a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sometimes it’s hard, mainly because the questions themselves can require us to think and deal with things that we’d rather not.

But what things in life that are worth doing are easy or simple? Not many.

Ask Questions. Give Answers

You’ll be amazed how much the communication in your organization, your group, your team, maybe even your life improves.