Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.
As we conclude this series, I thought it appropriate to focus on what I feel is the number one challenge facing organizational leaders—communication. During my 32 years in public safety, I spent more than two decades in some type of leadership role. What always amazed me was how much communication played a role in absolutely every aspect of life. Personal and professional relationships, the chain of command, serving the public, officer safety—you name it, communication is essential. This fundamental component is at the center of the human experience.
And in my experience, a majority of the problems facing organizational leadership can be traced back to some type of communication breakdown. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said that “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Rachid Zeffane and his colleagues researched the relationship between communication, commitment and trust and noted how, “There’s no such thing as employees being too informed.”
Before we dive deeper into this month’s topic, let’s explore some essential elements.
Zeffane et al identifies communication as “the formal as well as informal sharing of meaningful and timely information.” As public safety professionals, we know that this “meaningful and timely information” consists of both verbal and nonverbal communication elements. Albert Mehrabian’s research into body language broke communication down into three components—55% nonverbal, 38% paralinguistic, and 7% spoken word. Now it’s important to understand that this does not mean 93% of communication has nothing to do with the actual words spoken, which is how Mehrabian’s limited studies are sometimes misinterpreted. Rather, the importance of the research is to underscore the power of nonverbal communication. Mehrabian said that “[w]hen there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.” Nonverbal elements are a bigger part of individual communication than we often remember.
There is a tendency for information to become diluted or distorted as each supervisor and manager consciously or unconsciously selects and edits information.
When we look at organizational systems of communication in public safety agencies, they are usually created by setting up formal systems of responsibility with explicit delegation of required duties. Formal communication is required and generally follows an accepted pattern or structure (think about the chain of command). Messages that travel through the formal channels of any organization may follow routine patterns. They might also be expected at a given time or presented in a standard form and receive a regular degree of consideration by organizational leaders.
Even though much of this seems rudimentary and, for the most part, our lives largely depend on it, breakdowns in communication routinely plague public safety professionals.
All humans are born with the ability to communicate in some manner. Since communication is a natural, biological ability, why is it the most prevalent issue plaguing our lives? Simple answer—it takes work! Most research confirms that people spend 70% to 80% of their waking hours engaged in some form of communication. About 45% of that process involves listening. Most of us are poor and inefficient listeners, a situation that’s exacerbated by the fact we speak at about 25 words per minute but have the capacity to understand someone speaking up to 400 words per minute. If you consider that we only use about 25% of our brain power while communicating, the remaining 75% detracts from our ability to focus on the conversation. The bottom line: If we want to be better communicators, we must enhance our ability to listen, even though we are biologically programmed to fail.
Another important factor centers on the times we’re in. During her research, author Sherry Turkle discovered a 40% drop in empathy among college students during the past 20 years. This decline was attributed to students having less direct face-to-face contact with one another, a situation that evolved well before the current pandemic. Turkle also pointed out how multitasking means our brains are moving quickly from one thing to the next, with performance degrading as we assume a new task. This ultimately leads to ineffective time management and difficulty reading human emotions, which further stifles effective communication. Consider the nature of public safety work and the ongoing requirements for juggling myriad assignments or tasks on a given shift and how this might translate to degraded communication while on the job.
The dynamics occurring on an individual level in turn affect communication on an organizational level. Arindam Dutta et al found “that communication is strongly related to productivity in an organization,” especially in organizations where the primary work involves interactions with clients or customers. A lack of trust can also inhibit communication. Zeffane et al found a strong relationship between communication, trust and individual commitment. They noted how “good communication averts misperceptions which are often at the heart of feelings of mistrust. When feelings of trust are established, there would be a greater change for true feelings of loyalty and commitment to take place.”
Bad communication doesn’t just impact relationships; it can adversely affect the bottom line. A recent public relations industry report attributes $37 billion in lost productivity globally to poor communication. Their survey of 400 U.S. and U.K. corporations having over 100,000 employees found that “Communication barriers cost the average organization $62.4 million per year in lost productivity.” It should come as no surprise that the same report found companies with leaders who were effective at communicating produced a nearly 50% higher rate of return over a five-year period. Even though the goals in public safety never revolve around monetary rates of return, they do rely on productivity to achieve organizational goals and objectives.
Barriers to communication in public safety agencies can occur at any place in the system and may be a result of improper techniques on the part of either the sender or the receiver. Senders hinder communication when they:
- Are unclear about what is to be accomplished.
- Make incorrect assumptions about the receiver.
- Fail to develop a mechanism for receiving appropriate feedback.
- Incorrectly analyze the audience/person or use language that causes the audience/person to stop listening.
- Fail to have the appropriate background, experience and attitude.
- Use the wrong communication medium.
Schneider attributes many communication breakdowns to differences in individual work style and personality. This can impact subtle aspects such as the method for communication delivery. Consider how introverted employees may appreciate a more structured and formal type of communication, while their extroverted counterparts respond better to informal communication mediums that allow for a more conceptual type of dialog.
Receivers hinder communication when they:
- Are poor listeners or are distracted.
- Jump to conclusions.
- Hear or see only certain parts of the message.
- Reject any message that contradicts personal beliefs or assumptions.
- Have other concerns or emotional barriers.
Research indicates the average listener hears, understands and retains about 50% of what is said during a 10-minute oral presentation. Within 48 hours, retention and comprehension drops to 25%. What this tells us is that even under the most optimal conditions, communication breakdowns can easily occur.
If you consider that we only use about 25% of our brain power while communicating, the remaining 75% detracts from our ability to focus on the conversation.
Keep in mind there are also physical barriers that inhibit good communication. Within the workplace, such things as noise, temperature and other physical distractions can all take their toll. Sender-receiver relationships are a big component as well. While confirming a relationship between communication, commitment and trust, Zeffane et al discovered that promoting and building positive trust relationships requires managers to communicate well with their employees “as honestly and directly as possible, particularly during uncertain times.”
The physical distance separating superiors and subordinates may impede proper communication. It becomes difficult when superiors are isolated and are seldom seen or spoken to. In larger organizations, senior executives may be located in headquarters that aren’t easily reached or frequented by subordinates. Agency policies and other issues may create organizational barriers as well. The complexity of a given organization may also cause disruptions in communication. Depending on the hierarchy of a given organization, there is a tendency for information to become diluted or distorted as each supervisor and manager consciously or unconsciously selects and edits information. The more levels the information passes through, the more filtering can occur.
When we look at the statistics, it’s easy to see how much work goes into effective communication. This isn’t an easy task for anyone; however, supervisors carry a huge burden with it comes to effectively communicating and connecting with subordinates. I was troubled by a Harris Poll that indicates 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Over one-third (37%) said they were even more uncomfortable giving direct feedback about employee performance.
I’ve always told new leaders to embrace two fundamental truths. First, you won’t always make the right decision, but don’t let that inhibit your ability make one. Second, you won’t always make everyone happy, so don’t try to engage in a popularity contest.
Former entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn said that “effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know.” Don’t shy away from your responsibilities as a leader. Remember that both your people and the organization are counting on you to put your best foot forward when it comes to finding the leader in you!
- Zeffane R, Tipu S, Ryan J. (2011) Communication, Commitment & Trust: Exploring the Triad. International Journal of Business and Management. 6(6) Accessed 1/3/22 from https://ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ijbm/article/view/10815.
- The University of Texas, Permian Basin. (2021) How Much of Communication Is Nonverbal? Accessed 1/3/22 from: https://online.utpb.edu/about-us/articles/communication/how-much-of-communication-is-nonverbal/.
- Lee D and Hatesohl D. (1993). Listening: Our Most Used Communication Skill. University of Missouri Extension. Accessed 1/3/22 from: https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/handle/10355/50293.
- Turkle S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin-Random House. New York.
- Dutta A, Steiner E, Proulx J et al. (2021). Analyzing the relationship between productivity and human communication in an organizational setting. PLoS ONE. 16(7). Accessed 1/3/22 from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250301.
- Schneider M. (2021). Costs of Poor Communication Reach $37 Billion. Avoid Disconnects by Implementing These 2 Things. Inc. Accessed 1/3/22 from: https://www.inc.com/michael-schneider/the-extrovert-vs-introvert-dynamic-could-be-costing-your-organization-millions-heres-how-to-bridge-communication-gap.html.
- Solomon L. (2016). Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees. Harvard Business Review. Accessed 1/3/22 from: https://hbr.org/2016/03/two-thirds-of-managers-are-uncomfortable-communicating-with-employees.