Why do they not understand me?

The boss finishes his rousing strategy speech to warm applause and then asks the inevitable question, ‘Any questions?’ None are offered so he packs up his notes, satisfied and leaves the podium heading to the airport. He ponders in the taxi why he had worried about the speech. It seemed to have gone down very well, and more surprisingly, they had got it.

The audience meanwhile, shuffle out to the coffee machine, and start to discuss the details of the boss’s twelve-element strategy with seven sub-criteria in each element. ‘He totally lost me on the point about “Global Footprint.”‘ said one. ‘I was lost way before that.’ said another. ‘Well why the hell didn’t you speak up at the end, during question time, to clarify?’ said the Project Manager. ‘We have got to implement this thing starting Monday!’

The above incident is not unique. It occurs at all levels throughout the international business community. The consequences of that miscommunication and the depth of lack of understanding can be potentially damaging, depending on the circumstances.

There can be many reasons why people will not put their hands up and ask the burning question that needs to be asked. They may not want to appear stupid for not getting the sophisticated messages immediately. They may not want to ask the boss because he always takes a dim view of people who ask dumb questions. They could simply be waiting for some other brave soul to ask the question everyone wants answering.

There are many more reasons just as valid and just as responsible for not stimulating the transfer of the required information at the most effective time.

‘There is nothing more mysterious than the power of speech’, said Edward Thomas. He really could have added, ‘to confuse or convince in equal measure’.

I am regularly astonished by the inability of leaders to convey even the simplest of messages. I was working recently at a very respected investment bank in Canary Wharf. On approaching, I saw to my surprise and delight that the company name was emblazoned across the side of the building twice, with two very different brand images and spellings. I was delivering a talk that day on effective corporate communication and it really was a great topical opener for the talk.

In another instance I was struggling at a supermarket recently because the eggs were classified by a numerical scale. ‘Which is the largest egg, one or five?’ I asked an assistant. ‘No idea’, he said. ‘Look inside the box.’ I checked in another supermarket and was glad to find that the eggs were classified as large, medium or small. It did not need a question to work out which was large!

Ruthless simplicity is the key to ensure that the information we are trying to convey is fully understood by those we are trying to inform. My earliest and most memorable example of how not to do this was as a first-time leader in the Royal Navy some 45 years ago.

My colleagues and I were on a tough leadership programme in the Welsh mountains, where I was the leader in charge of a cohort of new apprentices. At that time my senior officer was a formidable man called Tony Moore. Just as the sun was setting, late afternoon (it was November), Tony appeared totally unexpectedly out of the mist, dressed only in a vest and shorts and barked that he would see us at the camp, before jogging ahead and disappearing back into the mist. We were all in full mountaineering kit and freezing cold.

We arrived at the camp with some trepidation as Tony was not known for his sense of humour. Upon arrival we lined up as a squad and on inspecting the squad, Tony asked one of the apprentices ‘what time is it, young man?’

The young chap in question looked at his watch nervously and replied ‘Half past four Sir.’ Tony Moore’s face went purple in rage, as he chastised the young man, replying ‘I don’t know what village you are depriving of an idiot, you are in the Royal Navy now laddie, and when I ask what time it is I expect a full maritime response, do you understand? I looked at the poor young guy and soon realised he had no idea what Tony was on about. It transpired Tony simply wanted the answer using the 24-hour clock. Tony asked again, ‘So, I will ask you again, what time is it?’ The apprentice looked at his watch, looked at me for inspiration but I could not help as I had no idea what Tony wanted either. After what seemed like an eternity the young lad replied, ‘Half past four, me hearty!’

I still laugh now, but it regularly reminds me, that as leaders we need to talk in a language that everyone understands.


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