The “value add” tax – a riff on corporate communication
A mainstay of team building workshops is the old “what can we do better” exercise. Over the years I’ve noticed that “improving communication” is an item that comes up again and again in these events. This is frustrating for managers. For example, during a team-building debrief some years ago, an exasperated executive remarked, “Oh don’t pay any attention to that [better communication], it keeps coming up no matter what we do.”
The executive had a point. The organisation had invested much effort in establishing new channels of communication – social media, online, face-to-face forums etc. The uptake, however, was disappointing: turnout at the face-to-face meetings was consistently low as was use of other channels.
As far as management was concerned, they had done their job by establishing communication channels and making them available to all. What more could they be expected to do? The matter was dismissed with a collective shrug of suit-clad shoulders…until the next team building event, when the issue was highlighted by employees yet again.
After much hand-wringing, the organisation embarked on another “better communication cycle.” Much effort was expended…again, with the same disappointing results.
Anecdotal evidence via conversations with friends and collaborators suggests that variants of this story play out in many organisations. This makes the issue well worth exploring. I won’t be so presumptuous as to offer answers; I’m well aware that folks much better qualified than I have spent years attempting to do so. Instead I raise a point which, though often overlooked, might well have something to do with the lack of genuine communication in organisations.
Communication experts have long agreed that face-to-face dialogue is the most effective mode of communication. Backing for this comes from the interactional or pragmatic view, which is based on the premise that communication is more about building relationships than conveying information. Among other things, face-to-face communication enables the communicating parties to observe and interpret non-verbal signals such as facial expression and gestures and, as we all know, these often “say” much more than what’s being said.
A few months ago I started paying closer attention to non-verbal cues. This can be hard to do because people are good at disguising their feelings. Involuntary expressions indicative of people’s real thoughts can be fleeting. A flicker of worry, fear or anger is quickly covered by a mask of indifference.
In meetings, difficult topics tend to be couched in platitudinous language. Platitudes are empty words that sound great but can be interpreted in many different ways. Reconciling those differences often leads to pointless arguments that are emotionally draining. Perhaps this is why people prefer to take refuge in indifference.
A while ago I was sitting in a meeting where the phrase “value add activity” (sic) cropped up once, then again…and then many times over. Soon it was apparent that everyone in the room had a very different conception of what constituted a “value add activity.” Some argued that project management is a value add activity, others disagreed vehemently arguing that project management is a bureaucratic exercise and that real value lies in creating something. Round and round the arguments went but there was no agreement on what constituted a “value add activity.” The discussion generated a lot of heat but shed no light whatsoever on the term.
A problem with communication in the corporate world is that it is loaded with such platitudes. To make sense of these, people have to pay what I call a “value add” tax – the effort in reaching a consensus on what the platitudinous terms mean. This can be emotionally extortionate because platitudes often touch upon issues that affect people’s sense of well-being.
Indifference is easier because we can then pretend to understand and agree with each other when we would rather not understand, let alone agree, at all.