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How to Shift from Miscommunication to Performance

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If you’ve been watching The Next Food Network Star, you know that Malcom Mitchell received the same feedback from network execs and his producer/coach, Bobby Flay, week after week: Develop and communicate a point of view (POV) that’s uniquely your own.

Malcom discounted the advice each time. He said that his food was too good for him to need a point of view. Malcom also feared that a narrow focus would pigeonhole him.

He totally missed the point. So did the Food Network. By repeatedly delivering the same message in the same way, they never actually communicated.

What the network was really saying is that Malcom would only be able to create enough value for them to justify winning the competition if he could establish a brand that would attract and retain a sufficiently large and loyal viewer following. To do that effectively, Malcom would need to narrow his focus enough to appeal to a very specific target market. (That’s a topic for a different day.)

Talking at Each Other

Malcom thought his strengths would overcome the network’s objections, so he stubbornly continued down a path with only one possible outcome: Elimination. The same dynamic of talking at employees occurs in companies across the globe on a daily basis. In fact, it happened to me.

A number of years ago, I received a promotion and inherited a team of engineers that worked remotely. Senior management warned me that one of them was a slacker that I needed to whip into shape.

I flew to the Midwest to meet with my new team members. The engineer certainly exhibited a laid-back attitude. It appeared as if he’d run out of gas after 15 years on the job. We talked about senior management’s perception and my performance expectations during that first visit. Nothing changed. We talked about it again. Nothing changed. Looking back, we spent a lot of time talking at each other rather than communicating with each other.

The Wake-up Call

The cycle repeated a few more times until annual reviews rolled around and I downgraded his rating from the prior year. The lower rating impacted his bonus and injured his pride. I finally had his total attention. Now, willing to listen, the engineer wanted to know how he could improve performance and his perceived value to the company.

We devised a plan (and modified an old management by objectives framework) to facilitate an ongoing, open dialogue. From that point forward we met once a month to discuss and measure progress toward short- and long-term goals that he set and I agreed to.

We developed a relationship built on honest, bi-directional feedback and trust. That year he outperformed every other engineer in the company… all while maintaining his laid-back, unflappable personality.

I firmly believe that there should be no surprises at review time and practice giving constructive feedback on an ongoing basis. The engineer was surprised by the nature of his annual review. I had failed this employee by making the same mistake the network made: Delivering the same message using the same words time-after-time.  The engineer made Malcom’s mistake. He didn’t want to listen.

Had our process produced a different outcome, senior management would have pressured me to terminate an employee who proved his value once he truly understood requirements. Given that the engineer had the desire and ability to perform, that would have been my failure rather than his.

Leading through The Employee’s POV

The good news is that, with a little forethought, you can stop talking at each other to develop productive, rewarding relationships. That requires a leadership style that embraces diversity rather than enforces conformity. High performing teams require a leader who will take every employee’s point of view, personality traits, and strengths into account.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve definitely experienced the miscommunication caused by people talking AT each other not TO each other. You offer valuable advice here that we can all use in some aspect of our lives. And I liked that you used the analogy from the Next Food Network Star to give us a rea lworld example!

    July 12, 2012
    • Thank you, Stephanie. It’s pretty interesting how much the reality cooking shows reveal about leadership, communication, and behavior in general. Much to my husband’s dismay, I am hooked.

      July 12, 2012

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