Potential disconnect: What you say, what employees hear

By Jim Kendall

This column originally appeared in the May 19, 2014 Daily Herald



Aargh! The strategic approach you described to your sales team on Monday became five different approaches on Tuesday, though each sales person believed he, or she, was in step with the program.

Perhaps it was the new customer service plan that drew enthusiastic support, then disappeared when your staff left the meeting room – even though everyone on the team believed they were following your directions.

The disconnect between what you thought you said and what employees thought they heard can be important. And if the message is important – how to approach a new market or how to handle customers when a delivery is late, for example – then, says Tom Berliner, “If it’s anything other than the sky is blue, it behooves the leader to demand confirmation that the message was received.”

Berliner is an associate professor in the Dunham School of Business at Aurora (IL) University, where his focus is leadership. Earlier, he was dean of the business school at Judson University, Elgin.

The process is what Berliner calls “servant leadership,” which he defines as “a way of empowering those on your team.” Berliner talks of a “reverse pyramid, with (staff) on top and the leaders finding out what to do on the bottom.” The intent, Berliner says, “is to empower members of the team to provide more input, become more invested” in the issue at hand.

The question, however, is how you – the business owner-leader-manager – assure employees are hearing what you’re saying.

“You set the table with a well-chosen preface,” Berliner explains. “Something on the order of the following might help: ‘I want to share something with you, but I’m having a bit of trouble packaging it in my own head. That tells me I might have even more of a challenge (communicating) it effectively to you.

‘When I’m done, I’d like you to tell me what you heard me say. That way I can rest easy. Would that be OK?’

“The words you choose need to be your own,” Berliner continues. “It’s the table setting I want to emphasize.”

Successful business owners “go through something like this,” Berliner says. “It’s ‘Tell me what you heard and then let’s discuss it. This is so important, I want to make certain I’ve communicated effectively.’”

Berliner’s approach may or may not fit your style, but if you’ve ever been in one of those “But-this-isn’t-what-I-wanted” situations, then maybe you should rethink your communications style.

That’s as true outside the business as it is inside. Honing the message you deliver to prospective customers can be as important as your message to employees.

If, for example, the long winter slowed your landscape design or lawn mowing business, this may be the week to put on your company shirt and knock on doors in neighborhoods where you have business. First, though, ask current customers for referrals – and to allow you to put a sign in their yards.


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