Communication Roulette – The Culture of Disinformation
When I was a child, I recall several adults asserting that the news was presented at a 5-grade English level because Americans were stupid. While I do think there has been a dumbing down of things, such that it does not give Americans credit for the brilliant and ingenious forces that they can be, I do not agree that that is why information in the news was originally made plain.
The U.S. is and always has been a melting pot of if souls from all over the globe. Certainly, early on there was no national language (Even today, there is no federally designated national language.). As such, many immigrants used their original language. Many households were made up of 3 or more generations. It was not uncommon to have grandma, who spoke no English, Dad, who spoke limited English and 10-year-old daughter who spoke fluent English at a 5th grade level. In this scenario, you can see why it was critical to distribute important information in as simple a language as possible. If the message was “We are at war!”, all three generations would likely understand. Where grandma and/or dad didn’t, a 10-year-old could understand well enough to translate.
As I look at some of the crises that have befallen companies over the past 10 years, I am reminded of the benefits of this plain way of delivering information. I am also reminded that the standard way that information is delivered to senior management and boards is very different. In exploring this, I thought it made sense to consider the benefits of this form of delivery using examples that are common in large and global companies.
Many global companies today, indeed, companies in general, have teams and leadership in or from multiple countries. This brings the benefit of a wide variety of perspectives and expertise. It also brings the challenges of different cultures and levels of language comprehension.
We often see fluency in a black and white framework of yes or no. However, there are significant variations in dialects, generations, etc. A fanny in the queen’s English means something very different than it does in the U.S. To manage this in information delivery, we must set aside colloquialism, slang and jargon and deliver the important bits at a 5th grade level.
As a more specific example to boards and senior management, boards and senior management are made of experts in specific fields (let’s hope, anyway), such as legal, finance, operations, etc. Finance, Marketing, Operations all use financial calculations. It would be easy to assume that they are all fluent in the same language. However, there are differences in use of terms and calculations. Moreover, Legal may have no understanding of finance, but their input on decisions driven by Finance, Marketing, Operations or others may be critical in ensuring the health and safety of the firm.
Time and again I have watched information be presented to boards and leadership that is eloquently and even beautifully composed in the language of the presenter, but not in any way discernable by listeners outside of the presenter’s expertise. I’ve also watched board members nod and go along, as not to identify that the speaker/information is not clear. This is a disservice to the company, and the largest yet-to-be tackled risk in corporate America. And, it speaks to a cultural challenge.
How we speak to each other allows us to intentionally or unintentionally hide information, maintain control and feel secure. Pretending to understand allows us to save face and overlook responsibilities. Both shed light on how we value our organization and each other. In speaking to a professor on the subject, he noted that the solution was for non-finance people to learn finance. Which branch? How deeply? Are the finance people learning the law, HR, or any of the other expertise that are critical in making an organization successful? No, because that would be a waste of time and valuable resources. Instead, the solution is to level the playing field using common, plain language (the language of a 5th grader). Doing so says that we understand our value to the organization and do not need to hide or garner control through elusion or omission. It says that we value our partners and our organization enough to want to understand and be understood.
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