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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #22 - Overcommunicating and the Curse of Knowledge

By Russ Sabia

When my daughter was five, she taught me an important lesson about leadership communication. One summer day, we went out sailing and she brought along a toy flute. After playing with it for a while, she said, “Daddy, guess what song I am playing.”

As she played, all I heard were a series of semi-rhythmic, monotone toots that she played over and over. After a while, I ventured a guess, “Is that ‘The Wheels on the Bus?'”

The look of disbelief she gave me was comical, as if to say, “How stupid can you be?”

“Dad! That was the happy birthday song!”

As this game continued, I could see that each time she played a song, there was a symphony taking place in her head. Yet each time I only heard the repetitive single-toned toots.

To her exasperation, I guessed incorrectly almost every time.

Lost in Translation: “The Curse of Knowledge”

The experience with my daughter mirrors the problem that leaders face every day as they drive alignment, strategy and change through their organizations. My daughter knew the songs she was playing so well, she could hear the words and music and harmonies so beautifully in her head and yet, all I could hear were “toots.”

Similarly, leaders often understand their organization’s direction, strategy and plans so well (their symphony) yet when they communicate to others in the organization something gets lost in translation.

One Stanford study identified this phenomenon as “the curse of knowledge” – knowing something so well that our knowledge “curses” us. We then have a difficult time communicating it to other people who don’t know it.

For instance, when a leader talks about “creating customer intimacy,” it comes from years of experience within her business – experience that many listeners might not share. When listeners aren’t crystal clear about what a strategy or priority means, they will act with the best intentions on their interpretation of what they think leaders are saying – and can end up rowing in different directions.

That’s why the third discipline of organizational health, overcommunicating clarity, is so important – it helps bridge the curse of knowledge gap. Leaders must purposefully overcommunicate in a way that resonates and sticks with others in the organization.

Here’s how.

Three Ways to Overcommunicate More Effectively

1. Repetition – We like to say that leaders need to be Chief Reminding Officers. Leaders’ messages must be articulated consistently over time, through different sources and in a variety of ways to align the organization around their strategy and clarity.

Employees have learned to be skeptical of executive pronouncements that never come to fruition. Research tells us that people need to hear something at least seven times before they begin to believe leaders are serious and that it isn’t just the flavor of the month. That’s hard to do for many leaders who hate to repeat themselves or who feel they are insulting smart people when they do.

One organization I work with has created a very strong culture around their core values by communicating and reinforcing them over and over in a variety of ways. Their values are frequently referred to at meetings. They have posters and artwork throughout their buildings and on their internal website that constantly remind people of key behaviors associated with the values. And, people receive frequent feedback not only on their performance, but also on how their behavior aligns to the organization’s values. One division leader even spends a full day each quarter with new employees during their orientation discussing the company culture and personally relates how the company’s values influenced his own development and career.

2.Cascading Communication – This is a simple and remarkably effective communication technique where members of a leadership team come out of their meetings speaking in one voice, with clear messages to their direct reports.

The trick to this method of communication starts at the end of each executive team meeting. Leaders need to review the agreements and decisions they made, determine exactly what should be communicated and decide who to communicate it to. Team members then consistently convey those messages to the next level within an agreed-upon timeframe.

The cascading communication is delivered face to face or by phone/teleconference so that nothing is lost in translation, and so people can ask questions to clarify. Direct reports then cascade the messages, in the same way, to their own direct reports and so on.

3. Tell Stories –Stories are an engaging way to pass on information, illustrate and reinforce the right behaviors, and dispel skepticism. FedEx used stories internally to support their guarantee of “absolutely, positively overnight.” They told the story of one driver whose truck broke down and whose replacement van was late. Worried about finishing her route on time, the driver delivered some packages on foot and then persuaded a competitor’s driver to handle the few last stops. That’s one motivating story that illustrates the strategy in action.

Overcommunication is deceptively hard for leaders because of “the curse of knowledge,” but it is also the very thing that helps align people around organizational clarity. Using these communication techniques can help people more accurately “name that tune” and translate their understanding into actions that can support your goals.