ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — December 2002

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Customer-Supplier Communication Systems: 360° Communications Loops
Get Off the Island!
Bridging the Gap at Work
From Our Readers
Letter to the Editor
FISH! The Book and the Video: A Review
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December 2002 News for a Change—Home Page

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Get Off the Island!
Bridging the Gap at Work

Communication—it’s something all of us can do better. News for a Change thought that it might be wise to get some tips from an expert on practical communication. We’ve asked Meryl Runion, author of the book, PowerPhrases! The Perfect Words to Say It Right and Get the Results You Want, to share her insights on interdepartmental communications, which clearly can be extended to customer-supplier team communications.

Coming home from a presentation in Wilmington, DE, I scored a first-class upgrade for the Atlanta-Colorado Springs segment of the journey. I knew exactly how I was going to spend my time. As soon as I settled in, I was going to put in my earplugs and put on my noise reduction headset. I was going to put my eye mask over that, snuggle up with my pillow, and settle into three hours and 20 minutes of rest, reflection, relaxation, and meditation.

My plans changed when I overheard the man seated next to me speaking with someone behind him.

“What have you been up to?” the man from the next row asked.

“Homeland security,” my new seatmate replied.

In that one instant, my plans changed. I wanted to know all about my seatmate and the project in which he was involved.

He calls himself “Tiger.” He is a part of a team sent to Washington, DC, to get the 22 agencies and departments that are responsible for our security to communicate with one another.

I was preparing to go to Boulder, CO, to get the six departments of a drug manufacturing company talking to each other. Compared to Tiger’s project in DC, my job in Boulder now seemed easy.

Although the lack of communication between departments in the U.S. government became glaringly obvious in 2001, the breakdown of communication in corporate America has received less attention. Within our corporations, two-thirds of employees say there is poor communication between departments. In a way, departments function like islands. They are separated physically with different locations, functionally by different roles, financially by separate accounting procedures, and verbally because they speak different languages. This can result in overlapping responsibilities, unnecessary conflict, and poor customer care.

Improving understanding between departments is complex, so any effort to bridge the gap needs to include creating shared principles of communication. The PowerPhrase® principles provide clear guidelines for interdepartmental communication that can mitigate the effects of separation caused by compartmentalization.

A PowerPhrase is a short, specific expression that gets results by saying what you mean and meaning what you say without being mean when you say it. Each aspect of this definition is vital to ensuring effective communication.

Short

A PowerPhrase is short. When it comes to communication, less is more. This is particularly true with interdepartmental communication where the receiver is much less concerned with the subject than the one communicating.

Mary was upset when the project she sent to Jesse in the graphics department was not completed at the promised time. She stormed into Jesse’s office and exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have subcontracted it out!” Jesse protested that in fact he did tell her—in a single spaced, two- page memo he circulated to the department heads. He began by informing them of the urgent new project he had just been assigned. After several paragraphs of explaining this new project, he talked about the chain of command and the procedures he follows to prioritize work. In the third paragraph of page two, Jesse discussed exactly how it would affect his work schedule. He closed with two paragraphs of apology; detailing the quick fixes he could do if necessary and expressed his appreciation for everyone’s patience and understanding.

Mary’s boss took one look at the memo and did not see the relevance of it. As a result, Mary never saw the memo.

She might have been informed had Jesse’s message not gotten lost in too many words. A PowerPhrase would have been to say:

“Due to a high priority project, all scheduled project deadlines will be extended by five days. This will affect work orders by the following five people...I regret the delay.”

Keeping it short is particularly effective in e-mail communication. Ideally, the bulk of the message needs to be included in the subject line. The opening paragraph should make it clear what action the sender wants accomplished. For example, a subject line of “Company Picnic July 30th! RSVP by July 3rd “ would be far more likely to get a reply than one that only mentioned “Company Picnic” in the subject line. Even worse would be a subject line that said “Interdepartmental Memo,” which gives no insight into the content.

Remember: Keep it short, get right to the point, and go into detail only if necessary and only after the main points are communicated.

Specific

A PowerPhrase is specific. Being specific is an important part of the definition of a PowerPhrase, and it is even more essential in interdepartmental communication. Each department has its own language, and, unless meanings are spelled out, there is ample opportunity for misunderstanding. What is assumed in one department may be a foreign language in another.

Gene was upset when the samples he’d given to research for testing did not come back to him on time. Gene had not been specific about the urgency of the work order. When he dropped the samples off, he said, “These are important.”

In Gene’s mind, that comment was clear. Anyone else from his department would know that remark meant that other priorities should be set aside. Gene was not aware that almost everyone who dropped work off at research claimed his or her project was important. There was nothing to separate his request from the others. Gene would have received his samples back on time had he been more specific. He could have said, “Fifteen design engineers are awaiting further testing on these samples. We need to get these back immediately so they can resume work and complete this project.”

A few more words—yes, but none of them is fluff. The message is clear. Remember: Say exactly what you mean and get exactly what you want.

Results

PowerPhrases get results. We often communicate in ways that elicit responses that are opposite to the ones we were hoping to get. Ask yourself how you can communicate in a way that is most likely to produce what you want.

For example, someone in the sales area might say to a person in production, “We’re losing accounts because you can’t get your act together and get products out fast enough.”
The likely effect of this comment is that production will end up complaining to each other about how sales never considers their needs. Together they may even conspire to hold fast to their timetables so that sales won’t expect so much.

A more effective approach would be to say: “We have a big new account on the line that insists on a 10-day turnaround. We need your help to hook this one account. Is there anything we can do to make it possible for that kind of turnaround to happen? It would be a windfall for our company.”

This phrasing is more likely to get results because it expresses the importance of the effort for the benefit of the company and elicits cooperation from production to work with sales as a team. By addressing production as an equal, the sales department increases the likelihood of cooperation.

Remember: Before you speak, ask what results you seek.

Meaning

PowerPhrases say what you mean. Do not hold back what needs to be said and, whatever you do, don’t hint! Make your point directly.

Barbara found that when some agents from her travel department handled her arrangements, they were more accommodating than others. She suspected that some bent the rules and others followed them more rigidly. She found that some agents were sloppy in the arrangements, and there were errors and omissions in her arrangements and itinerary.

Barbara hesitated to rock the boat, but she wasn’t getting her needs met. She didn’t know the culture in the travel department and was very careful about what she said about what other agents were doing for fear of getting someone in trouble. This caused her inconvenience and frustration.

When she vented her frustration to a friend, her friend suggested that Barbara speak up. She did, but she toned her message down. Barbara explained the occasional inconsistencies to the department supervisor. The supervisor did not fully understand Barbara’s message because Barbara did not really say what she meant. As a result, the supervisor did nothing. Finally, when she couldn’t take it any more, Barbara marched down to the supervisor and said, “Why don’t you take my complaints seriously? I told you things weren’t right and nothing has changed!” The supervisor was shocked. He thought Barbara was being completely irrational.

Barbara would have been better off saying what she meant from the beginning. She should have said: “I’m frustrated because every agent handles things differently, and I don’t know how to get what I need. I also am frustrated because I have experienced the following five errors in scheduling or in listings on my itinerary…. What can be done to make it easier to get accurate travel arrangements?”

Remember: Saying what we mean is a risk—but when we say it in a nonaggressive way, the risks are minimized.

Follow Through

PowerPhrases mean what they say. When you make a request, the best way to get a response is to follow through on what you say.

Mike is in maintenance. There is a standard procedure for work orders; however, many employees prefer not to fill out the forms and, instead, they corner Mike in the hall with their requests. Mike used to refer them to the forms, but when they resisted, he accommodated their requests. As a result, Mike finds it challenging to keep his orders organized.

Mike realized that by honoring requests that were not made according to procedure, he was teaching people that the procedures had no meaning. People learned that if they didn’t want to fill out the forms, they didn’t have to follow the process. These procedures kept Mike’s workday orderly, so he began to insist on work order forms for all non-emergency requests. Mike told his fellow employees, “Please submit your written requests to me on the work order forms. I will no longer accept oral requests.”

His co-workers soon learned that he meant what he said, and they got in the habit of filling out the appropriate forms.

Remember: Do not say something unless you intend to back yourself up.

Wording

PowerPhrases are not mean when you say them. This is the PowerPhrases principle that makes many people stop and think about their wording. Many people sacrifice clarity for kindness or sacrifice kindness for clarity. It is possible to have both.

PowerPhrases avoid blame, judgment, and accusation. Instead of saying “Your staff is incompetent” the message should be “Here are the problems I’ve been having.”

Sales and production, faculty and administration, and accounting and marketing often have traditional rivalries, which can become personalized and reinforced in an accusatory style of communication. PowerPhrases come from a perspective that is inclusive: “I have my needs and you have yours—how can we integrate the two?”

For example, you might say: “I know it seems my staff constantly is circumventing procedures you have established. How can we streamline the procedures, so we can get the essential information to you when a crisis occurs?”

This wording acknowledges the competing priorities of the two departments and attempts to integrate the two. This is far more effective than saying, “You don’t get it, do you?” or “You don’t understand what we do around here.”

Remember: A PowerPhrase does not shoot a cannon when a BB would work.

Summary

Whether you work in a coffee shop, a large corporation, or for Tiger’s homeland security team, PowerPhrases keep interdepartmental communication clear. A common understanding of the PowerPhrase principles among departments can create clarity and receptivity to the different perspectives between them. Having common principles of communication can mitigate some of the effects of separate functions, locations, and procedures, even if you do speak different languages.

Although effective communication alone cannot solve all problems between departments, it eliminates conflict and breaks down barriers that keep people working on their own islands.

MERYL RUNION began her career by designing effectiveness measures for use by police departments all across the country. Runion has a master’s degree in the science of creative intelligence and is certified as a stress management expert. She is known as a speaker and author across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. You may contact her via e-mail at ms.meryl@att.net .

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