You say trabajo, I say trabajar, let’s call the whole thing off

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For a few years I worked in a temporary staffing office, where the majority of my employees were Spanish speaking.  Equipped with the vast vocabulary amassed in my 10th grade Spanish class, I attempted conversations with the applicants.  I found myself to be lacking, so I began taking an evening class at a local high school.  I would show up for class early and quiz the teacher on how to you ask “Can you lift 40 pounds?” and “First, second, or third shift?”  I never could get the hang of the conjugation of verbs, however.  I would call employees and tell them that they were to go to work the next day and gain agreement.  Then I would be surprised that they would not be there.  After several tries, I spoke to my Spanish teacher only to discover that I had been telling them “I work tomorrow,” not “You work tomorrow.”  I was failing at information transfer.

Eisenberg, Goodall, and Tretheway define communication as much more than information transfer, but it does begin there.  No matter how creative you are in your communication, if you aren’t speaking the language of the listener, they won’t get it.  It’s easy to blame others for not listening and their resulting inaction, but perhaps we need to figure out our part in the miscommunication.  “Typical communication problems include information overload, distortion, and ambiguity” (p. 29).  Are you guilty of any of these?

Information overload: When someone is listening, do you drown them with the fire hose?
Perhaps those in need of information cannot handle the amount, rate of speed, or complexity of the information you are sending.  Minimize the points, slow it down, and speak their language.  Ask yourself, would the average person understand everything that I just said without a)going to sleep, b)having a seizure, or c)requiring a thesaurus?

Distortion: When someone is listening, do you get drowned out?
Read the posting on semantic noise below (where the meaning is unclear to the receiver), but also consider physical and contextual distortion.  If I want my husband to hear me, I need to ask him to turn down the television.  The physical sound creates a distortion in our communication.  Contextual distortion occurs when my perspective is different than the listener’s.  For example, when I say “Father” in reference to God, do I need to put the fatherhood of God into context for those who have a negative reaction to the word father?

Ambiguity: When someone is listening, do they drown in abstractions?
There is an acronym in sales called WIIFM.  Marketers have learned to make certain their appeals answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  This is what the listener is asking themselves.  We cannot prescribe the answer for everyone in every situation, but we can speak in an unambiguous way so that the listener can figure it out for themselves.  What are they to do with this information? 

Creative communication requires that the sender process these things long before the receiver can understand.  Information transfer is the most basic component of communication, but we cannot discuss higher theories of organizational communication without working on this most basic of ideas.  Have you found information overload, distortion, or ambiguity to be issues in your own communication, and how have you worked to solve these challenges?  Or how will you?

Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall, H. L. Jr., & Tretheway, A. (2007). Organizational communciation: Balancing creativity and constraint (5th ed.).  Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.

The Great Divide

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Recently an article on the holiness tradition of women in ministry, printed six years ago in Christianity Today, was brought to my attention.  It’s a really good article, but there was one paragraph that grabbed my attention.  As we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, I thought it was a great example of the struggles of those who have been oppressed by racism and sexism.  And I began to wonder why, over 100 years since this woman minister wrote this, the church is still the most racially segregated entity in our country.  I think that we should all think more about that, and what role communication plays in perpetuating the divide or tearing down the walls.

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African Methodist Episcopal preacher, singer, missionary, and orphans’ home founder Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915)…though highly esteemed in holiness circles, still felt frequently the sting of racism. She wrote at one point in her autobiography, “I think some people would understand the quintessence of sanctifying grace if they could be black about twenty-four hours.”


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Here’s the challenge to those who preside over the pulpit: you can’t change your race, gender, or circumstances for 24 hours, but you can spend time with people of different races, genders, and circumstances.  You cannot begin to speak to people if you have not begun to hear people.  If the only people who are influencing you look like you, talk like you, and live like you, then how can you hope to influence people who do not?

(There is obviously a lot more to this topic than a question of communication.  I encourage you to read the article and comment on your thoughts.)

Woodruff Tait, J. (2004). I received my commission from Him, brother: How women preacher built up the holiness movement. Christianity Today, 82.  Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2004/issue82/9.35.html

Celebrate Creative Contribution

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Organizations get caught up in planning and execution, but sometimes forget to stop and celebrate the results.  If something went horribly wrong, someone will probably point it out, but when was the last time someone in your organization pointed out something that went incredibly right? 

Part of the communication process is the feedback loop.  It is impossible to know if someone has understood what you have said if there is no feedback.  In an organization, the feedback loop is evaluation.  It is impossible to know if the organization’s efforts were successful without evaluation.  After an event, a project, a launch, or whatever your organization does, do you, as a team, invite feedback and celebrate creative contribution?

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   When I was one, I was left for a moment in my highchair while my mother attended to one of my five older siblings.  Just in reach of the highchair was an electrical outlet.  Being a curious toddler, I grabbed the cord that hung from the outlet and tugged.  A large percolator filled with 210 degree coffee fell toward me, and I experienced 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 2/3 of my body.  At the hospital, I received skin grafts and, because of the risk of infection, my parents were told my chances of survival.  The doctors suggested that this might be the last few minutes they might spend with me.
   Fast forward to 2006.  I was working on my second Masters degree, married, and called to ministry.  A good friend had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and I decided to attempt a marathon with Team in Training to raise awareness and show my support.  In six months, I went from a person who had never participated in any athletic activity to a person who completed a marathon.  
   Once I had recovered, I sat down at my computer and wrote an email to my mother.  In essence it asked if she ever thought, while she stared down at her little mummy baby in the hospital 38 years earlier, that her baby would one day complete a marathon.  In that email I told her that she had instilled in me the belief that there was nothing I couldn’t do.  Her belief in me translated to my belief in me.  Self-confidence came from mom-confidence.


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There is no more creative contribution one can experience than that given by a loving parent.  And in that moment, I felt that her creative contribution needed to be celebrated.  I don’t know if she had ever been acknowledged in that way before.  She was so proud of us, but I needed to tell her how proud I was of her.
In the organization, we cannot wait 38 years to complete the feedback loop.  Immediately after an event occurs, tell the people who contributed how proud you are of them.  Give specific details about what went right and how they contributed to that.  (We must also evaluate what went wrong, but that’s a post for another day.)  Celebrate the creative contribution that was made, and let people know how proud you are of them.

A Learning Ethos

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I promise that most of the thoughts in this blog will be my own, but today I am sharing a lesson from The Leadership Bible: Contemporary Leadership Principles (Zondervan, 1998).  One of the reasons that it resonated with me is that I was blessed to be a part of a learning organization for many years.  A member of 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia since 1993, I was blessed to work with Pastor Donna Whitten as a volunteer until 2002, when I was hired on staff as Series Coordinator.  Pastor Dave Ronne leads the Redemptive Arts area there and taught me everything I need to know about staying open to new ideas for communicating (story telling) and continuously stimulating learning in an organization. 
Many churches want to duplicate the results that 12Stone achieves; however, it starts with an atmosphere of learning, growing, and improving.  You can’t just duplicate the event; you have to duplicate the ethos.

Leadership Principle: The Learning Organization
Day 1
Read Judges 2:1-11
Following a smashing success, it’s easy to kick back and rest, to assume that current knowledge and achievements will assure future success.  That’s a dangerous attitude.  Unfortunately, it’s the one that the ancient Israelites adopted after the death of Joshua and his generation.  Joshua had led the Israelites in the conquest of the promised land.  His generation had personally witnessed God damming up the Jordan River and orchestrating the fall of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 3; 6).
The next generation “knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).  What a tragic and scathing statement.  An entire generation had failed to learn in any life-changing way about God or his deeds.  The void left by their ignorance allowed room in their hearts and minds to embrace idols and pagan peoples.  Ultimately, it led them into sin and brought down the anger of the Lord upon them.  They knew the stories of their predecessors’ successes and failures, but they didn’t learn from them.
When nations, organizations or teams stop learning, they’re setting themselves up for failure.  “Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it” summarizes succinctly the situation of the Israelites as portrayed in Judges, as well as the situation faced by teams who haven’t learned from past experiences.  Effective leaders know this.  They do their best to create an atmosphere that encourages learning within their organizations and teams.  They remember the principles gleaned through past experiences, and they help their people to apply them to new situations.
What are you currently doing to open yourself to new ideas?  What structures does your present organization have in place to stimulate learning?  What structures could it put in place?

The Leadership Bible is no longer in print, but can be purchased used: http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Bible-Sid-Buzzell/dp/031091244X