Corporate Communication and the Sound of One Hand Clapping

There’s an irony in writing blogs. Here I am, at some potentially great distance away from you, in time or space, sitting in front of a computer, and yet anticipating a conversation with another human being (That means you). If I didn’t have that genuine feeling of connection, I think I’d probably never blog at all. I wouldn’t read so many blogs, either.


What draws us to blogs and social media? I think it’s almost always about connectedness. There is a natural human desire to connect. After all, we’re social animals. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture in many countries for this reason.

While the instinct to connect is as natural as our need for food and shelter, it is one that is typically stifled in corporate environments, and that’s a problem. Too often, corporate communication is a monologue, not a dialogue. Business leaders tend to forget how our successes are often built on ideas generated by others. Communication is viewed as just another resource used to control, instead of engage, employees. Too many American business executives see “discussion” as an exercise in public relations, just another way to gain the upper hand.

In reality, breakthrough ideas tend to come from outside of traditional control-oriented companies. The workers who have the best ideas in these organizations are encouraged to communicate those ideas, to “shake things up” instead of being treated as though they don’t have a right to be heard.

IBM’s Executive Insights program is an initiative that tries to level the communications field, encouraging executives to use discussion as innovation resource, not a cattle prod. It’s a three-day program which gives real practice in social cognitive theory with the purpose of improving communication at every level.

Open Communication Requires Time … and Even Space

Open dialogue, trust, and respect. These are the three essential ideas of great team coaching and scaffolding, to build teams that “talk smart,” which in turn helps broaden the way employees expect to be heard. IBM has a vision of creating what I call a “smart talk zone.” Communication is part of the 360° feedback concept in IBM’s Executive Insights program. 360° feedback relies on gleaning insights from employees as well as managing executives to create a more complete, useful and actionable review. Few things have worked as well as 360° feedback to open deep dialogue. A 360° concept can clearly increase self-awareness skills while also helping to correct deficiencies in management through communication.

One thing we need to do more often is to create actual workplaces with physical environments designed to optimize open communication. Lev Vygotsky has even said that we must build specific “zones” to make this happen. Vygotsky, who survived the Russian Revolution, knows something about chaos and creation, silence and survival. The idea of building an actual, physical zone of communication is something that could truly revolutionize the way people expect to be heard. For now, IBM is attempting to create these kinds of creative communication zones with speakers bureaus that engage every level of management. Perhaps most importantly, IBM is committed to investing time in the process, too, since the workshops can last three days.

A college workshop on communication once left me with some valuable and lasting insights. As an example of how to communicate, a professor gave a sample lecture. I noticed a friend of mine taking notes on what he was saying – and I slipped a note to my friend: “Don’t write what he says…write down how he says it.” Context is essential. We value the “Eureka!” moment so much that we forget it almost always comes as part of a broader conversation. An unshared idea, I discovered, was the sound of one hand clapping. We tend to follow structure and miss meaning. When we consider and share ideas with others in context, we perceive. We create.

Being overly or rigidly structured, especially in how we communicate our goals, is why we so often get to the wrong places when we’re driving. After all, we know where we’re driving, even if what we know happens to be wrong. Once a company believes it is successful, it tends to become risk averse. It tends to blindly follow the pre-conceived directions without questioning them anymore. We can see that complacency in communication, in the way that innovative, “outside the box” communication can become stifled in a successful company. As corporate drivers, we may still feel connected to the steering wheel, but we forget the view, the intricacies, and the nuances that surround us.

Within the typical established corporate environment, we often tend to discount the ideas of people who appear to be unstructured in their communication. We want it to be sharp, efficient, to the point. Anything else seems like a waste of time, and hence a waste of money. But something can be lost in the equation: creativity.

I would challenge people to look anew at the shortcuts they use in daily communication. Are you able to consider new ideas with an open mind, even when these ideas may not be fully formed? Are you able to help cultivate and nurture ideas without controlling them? Are you empowering your employees with the assurance that they can run with an idea once it is fully formed? After all, James Laird at Clark University showed through his research that lasting positive communication relies on more than just words, but on action as well.

I remember as a child, seeing an old wooden plaque on a small business owner’s desk. It said “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when your talkin’.” We tend to learn best when we learn to listen. That’s easier said than done. But businesses have a lot to learn from their employees. Paying attention and empowering the exchange of ideas is a smart way for organizations leveraging a precious asset – and it’s the natural thing to do.