I’ve spent more than half a century as a communication professional. After all that time, I still don’t know how to explain my work to friends and strangers.
Possibly the reason is that they’ve personally seen few instances of effective communication in their own workplaces. Or maybe it’s because they long ago decided that corporate America and other organizations can’t really be trusted to act in anyone’s interest but their own, and their skepticism has turned to incredulity.
Whatever the reasons, including the complexity and uncertain outcomes of our work, I now understand some truths about my life’s work in a strange new world.
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Here are 10 fundamental truths that I believe every communication professional should be reflecting on today, because they define our universe:
1. The old days of “journalistic” communication are over. It’s not enough to “tell the company story” when that story changes in the blink of an eye and employees live in an insecure, confusing, and sometimes perverse world.
2. The skills that brought most of us to where we now find ourselves are inadequate at best and a serious obstacle to our understanding of our mission at worst.
3. Few of us truly understand what life is like for the rest of the workforce, because we live in a different world, in which information is plentiful and timely.
4. Company silos, including our own, are killing us and threatening our profession.
5. Communication has always been a complex, fascinating behavioral process governed by the assumptions and beliefs of the audience and totally subject to their perceptions. That’s even more true today.
6. Our profession for a long time now has been one that demands communication problem-solving skills and not simply movement of information.
7. Technology is both our servant and our enemy, because it causes us to believe that communication is easy.
8. Most senior leaders have severe credibility problems in an increasingly skeptical universe in which trust is in short supply.
9. The single, most-shocking fact about our work is that we have totally neglected the most powerful communication source any organization has—namely, its cadre of team leaders, supervisors, bosses, and others who daily lead the work and explain the organization’s realities.
10. The consequence of that deficit, says the Gallup Organization, is a disengaged workforce costing our companies an estimated $350 billion annually.
What to do?
Having practiced, written about, and lived this profession, I believe the above truths are the realities that face us today. The solutions:
1. Take a deep breath, close your office door, if you still have one, and reflect on everything you’re doing to communicate with (not to) your audience.
2. Question everything. What is its real value to the organization and its stakeholders? How do you know?
3. Become an expert on your organization’s crucial issues, and develop true communication strategies, not just a bunch of tactics.
4. Stop being bedazzled by the newest technical delivery mechanisms and platforms. They’re just transports in a dizzying network. It’s the cargo that counts.
5. Above all, reach out with your professional peers, regardless of their titles and allegiances, to your organization’s managers and team leaders with a robust initiative that trains, feeds, and informs them and holds them accountable for their communication roles. Get over the idea that they can’t or won’t do it.
6. Also get over your fears of measurement (only 30 percent of you measure anything) and understand that correlations are as persuasive as you can get. Cause-and-effect is almost never that clear—especially when it comes to the cause(s) of business success.
7. Recognize finally that you are as much a behavioral psychologist, an artist, a persuader, an astute listener, and an advisor as you are a thinker, a writer, a communication channel orchestrator, and an intranet gatekeeper.
8. Stop believing that social media are the Holy Grail for all communication problems. There is no communication Grail.
9. Become a perpetual learner and change expert.
10. Understand that only outcomes count; the rest is mere activity.
Those are my lessons learned.
Roger D’Aprix has had a rich and varied career as a communication professional—as a practitioner, consultant, author, and teacher. He has headed employee communication for Xerox and was V.P. and global communication practice leader for Towers Perrin, service developer for Mercer, and leader of his own consultancy for the last 16 years. He is also a senior advisor to ROI Communication and the author of seven books and countless articles on communication practice. He was named an IABC Fellow in 1978.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.