What We’ve Got Here Is Failure to Communicate                        April
18, 2013

By Leonard Zwelling

            This
is the correct wording of the famous Strother Martin line from the 1967 film
Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman. It is usually mangled in some way, but
that does not detract from its meaning or its continued applicability. Despite
the infinite number of gadgets and media outlets to move information from one
human to another (my definition of communication among people), we are not
effectively understanding one another very well.

            Here
at Anderson, it is no exception.

            The
favored means of communication is the email. It comes in various shapes and
sizes–with and without attachments, with or without emoticons and with or
without meaning. For those of us who have been here a while it is still an
amazing shift from the days of phone calls, beepers and memos. That doesn’t
make email a more effective communication tool. It’s just that, a tool, fast
and impersonal in the extreme. The number of times I have asked someone whether
they have communicated something to someone else (e.g., the review of an animal
protocol) and was told “I emailed her” as if that was the gist of their
responsibility, I want to scream. 

            “But
did they read the email and answer you?”, I ask.

            “I
don’t know”, is the usual answer.

            The
leadership of the institution also uses email a great deal. These emails are
often lengthy and detailed and while appreciated, tend to overwhelm the reader
who, at least when using a computer screen, iPad or iPhone has a very limited
attention span. (Personally, I print the long ones out to read). If it is
important enough for 10 paragraphs, it probably warrants more than an email.
And if an email is enough, keep it short! Bullet points are appreciated.

            What
is seemingly going awry? Are we really communicating any better with the
additional tools at our disposal?

            I
think not.

            I
think the communicators are forgetting to spend as much time on planning the
communication strategy as they do on the decision they wish communicated.

            My
favorite new “leadership” ploy is to hand down a decision and leave the
communication to an underling when the communication is every bit as important
as the decision itself. My favorite, favorite is the lengthy review of
someone’s service after he or she is relieved of a position, usually
involuntarily, that ends with let’s all thank Sue for her service and wish her
well in her new role, as if that will make Sue feel better. (I can assure you
it didn’t make me feel better when I was relieved of my vice presidency in
2007. It felt like the worst day of my Texas life. It turned out to have been
the best). Then the email goes on to extol the virtues of the new position
holder. This too goes on for paragraphs. I believe the office that sends these
out must save what it writes at the time of a new appointment for the email
that will be sent when that person is later relieved of the position.  This is economies of email.

            But
this is ineffective and for the most part dishonest communication. When
decisions are made, we are entitled to know why as long as ethical and criminal
concerns are not among the reasons. Otherwise, it all looks whimsical and
undermines the ability of leadership to lead and creates an environment of
terror and fear for when the truth is not out there, each observer will make up
his own.

            So
here’s a suggestion to all you decision makers including the faculty, the
lawyers, and the administrative leaders. Plan the communication strategy as
well as you plan the new direction you wish to take for if you don’t, you
leaders may discover that you have very few, if any, followers. This is not
because people don’t agree with you. It’s because they don’t understand what
you are doing, the direction you are proposing to go, or why and what, in the
end, you want.

            Oh
yes—also–they may not trust you because they don’t believe that you have told
them the truth.

Leonard Zwelling