Tag Archives: communication

Curious Communication

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have been reading your blog on the recommendation of one of the owners of my company. I am unsure of how to handle this situation. Our company has grown over the past few years and, with that growth, some roles have been re-structured, responsibilities shifted from one person to another. During this time, one of our critical business development processes appears to have shriveled from a lack of attention. It used to be a high priority, driven by the CEO, but now, it is hardly noticed, its momentum slowing to a standstill.

This has caused some concern in middle management, but we are unsure how to approach the CEO without causing controversy. We are not a bunch of whiners, but we think this is important. Somehow, somewhere, the ball got dropped.

Your question leads me to believe that your company culture doesn’t actively create open dialogue, that sometimes agendas, company and personal are driven with only half the story told. There is likely another side to this story. So, how to find this out “without causing controversy.”

Public or private, this conversation has to be held in a safe environment. In 1-1 conversations, I use the following phrase to set up the environment, “I am curious. -followed by the question-.” Curiosity is safe, keeps my agenda out of the explanation so I can truly hear the other side of the story.

A university chancellor, I work with, conducts frequent “brown bag” lunch sessions with students at his campus. The “brown bag” aspect removes the formality, and creates a more candid dialogue.

You might create a small “brown bag” affair, with an intimate group of “curious” managers and invite the CEO. One of my rules is “no surprises,” so the invitation should be clear to the CEO that you are there to find out the current Vision of the Business Development activities of the company. There is likely a reasonable explanation for this shift in focus.

You might find this “brown bag” affair becomes a regular event, once a month, once a quarter, and quite soon, will impact the culture of the company to promote this kind of curious communication.

The Value in a Manager’s Role

“What do you mean, bring value?” Joan asked. “Sounds easy to say, but I don’t know what you mean. How does a manager bring value to the problem solving and decision making in the team?”

“Do you bring value by telling people what to do?” I asked.

Joan sat back, looking for the odd angle in the question. “No,” she replied.

“You and I are sitting here talking,” I nodded. “And in our conversation, am I directing you, telling you how to be a manager?”

Again, the answer was “No.”

“And would you say that our conversations are valuable, valuable to you, in your role, as a manager?”

Joan followed the nod. “Yes,” she said slowly.

“I am not telling you what to do, yet, am I bringing value to the conversation?” I could see Joan making a leap in her mind to follow. “How am I doing that? If I am not telling you what to do, what kinds of sentences am I using?”

“Questions,” she responded. “You are not telling me what to do. You are asking questions and listening. And your questions are bringing value to the decisions I have to make and the problems I have to solve.”

Lost In Translation

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your Time Span workshop, you talk about the breakdowns in communication that can occur when a manager skips a layer, for example a Stratum IV manager working with a Stratum II supervisor. How can you tell when you have a lost-in-translation issue?


Communication breakdowns can occur for many reasons. Elliott Jaques, in his Time Span research often found, that problems we attribute to communication breakdowns or personality issues, turn out to be a misalignment in organizational structure.

A Stratum IV manager and a Stratum II supervisor are typically working on goals with markedly different Time Spans. Even looking at the same problem, their analysis will be different. The Stratum II supervisor may piece some of the elements together while the Stratum IV manager looks to see how this problem impacts other related systems down the road. Indeed, they may describe the problem using different words (terminology).

The S-II supervisor may wonder what the S-IV manager is talking about while the S-IV manager wonders why the S-II supervisor cannot see what is altogether clear. They use different words and see the world in different ways, creating that lost-in-translation syndrome.

But, your question was, how can you tell if this is Lost-in-translation? More importantly, how can we recognize the difficulty and what steps can we take to prevent it or cure it?

Underperformance of any kind indicates a problem. Any time performance does not meet expectation, there are three places to immediately look.

  • Is it a problem with the performance?
  • Is it a defect in the expectation?
  • Is there a problem with the communication of the expectation?

If it’s a problem with the communication, then lost-in-translation could be the culprit. And the accountability lies with the manager. It is (always) the manager who I hold accountable for the output of the team member.

What needs to change? What managerial behavior needs to change? I see two steps.

  1. The manager should recognize the time span framework of the team member. Here is a quick set of diagnostic questions – “What is the task? When should this task be completed?” The response from the team member is a clear indication of the Time Span the team member has in mind. This Time Span is impacting every decision surrounding this project. The adjustment for the manager is to speak in terms of the other person.
  2. The manager should examine the language (words) being used to make sure the meaning of the words is common and clear. During a task assignment, I will often ask the team member to take written notes and feed back to me their understanding of the work instruction. In there is confusion, it can generally identified in this step.

It is the manager I hold accountable. The manager is 100 percent responsible for the communication in this lost-in-translation issue.