Mind the gap!

Whenever I visit clients I try to overhear people talking in lifts, canteens and the coffee bar. It helps me understand the general beliefs within the organisation. When people talk about the policy of the organisation and where the board is heading, I usually notice a huge gap between the top and the lower levels. It is as if they are each in a world of their own.

To some extent that is exactly what is going on: ‘the top’ and ‘the staff’ are living in two different realities. Up in the boardroom, customer satisfaction is a graph that goes up or down as a result of all sorts of abstract steering factors that directors attempt to influence. There’s a lot at stake and this is one perfectly valid reality. That same customer satisfaction on the work floor, however, is the happy face of a customer when someone helps him out and the frustration when a system interruption puts everything on hold. That´s a valid reality too. One reality cannot be said to be less real than the other. But sometimes it seems as if these two realities are entirely unrelated. Facts and developments mean one thing to staff and something entirely different to management. The two groups each have their own frame of reference and speak a different language.

Jehovah Witnesses

Communication is not easy if you don´t understand each other´s frame of reference. I am not religious but I used to try and have a discussion with Jehovah Witnesses whenever they knocked at my door. If they said: ´On Judgement Day the sheep will be separated from the goats’, I would reply: ‘Listen: there is no God so how can there be a Judgement Day? Don’t you have any arguments that actually mean something to me?’ Which just goes to show that you need a minimum of shared principles to be able to talk.

So how do people get a common frame of reference? That’s simple: by being in frequent contact. Put a random group of managers and staff together for a week and let them talk about the company. Over time their views on reality will start to merge. They will start to interpret facts and developments in the same manner. This is how any group develops its own view on reality that is confirmed and strengthened day by day. However, directors interact mostly with their direct colleagues at the top, and staff with the people they work with, keeping their realities apart.

Different meanings of communication

My old communications professor used to talk about the difference between communicatio (transferring information) and communicare (making it communal). Communication within organisations is often driven by the first. The second, however, is far more important if you want to bridge the gap and get somewhere. You need to invest in regular direct contact between the various layers of the organisation. This will give employees an understanding of strategic priorities in their day-to-day reality, and will help the reality of ‘the work floor’ to strengthen the underlying strategy.