During the Second World War, both the United States and the United Kingdom used posters, like this one, to remind the public of the importance of guarding confidential information. Being careless by talking about war work in the wrong environment could literally cost lives.
What does this have to do with managing in modern organizations? Of course, it’s rare today that talking about our work could lead to catastrophe, but there is still a very important lesson here for managers: being aware of what you say and where you say it can have real consequences for your ability to lead your teams effectively.
When we talk about effective communication, too often we place more emphasis on the mechanics, like the two-way feedback loop, than on the setting or timing of the interaction. Choosing the right “venue” for communication is as important, if not more so, than what we are trying to convey. This is particularly true for difficult or uncomfortable conversations, such as providing performance feedback or conveying an unpopular decision. During the worst of the pandemic-related reductions in 2020, there were numerous accounts of entire work groups receiving notification of their layoff via a conference call or email blast. Little wonder, then, that many of those same organizations now report difficulty in convincing former employees to return.
Less dramatic, though probably more common, are the many times when poor timing gets in the way of effective communication. Consider the colleague who raises an unrelated issue, often important only to them, during a team meeting. The leader can avoid the (inevitable) disruption and rabbit hole by acknowledging the topic’s importance and setting a specific time to address it: e.g., “thank you for bringing up that important point/question/issue…you and I can discuss it as soon as this meeting ends.”
Just as important is where communication takes place, whether in an office behind closed doors, in the breakroom over lunch, or sitting in a conference room with a new client. Each venue conveys its own message about the importance, expectations of confidentiality, and formality of the communication that takes place there. Conversations criticizing other organizational members or processes – even when intended constructively – can convey the wrong impression about the organization, its people, and their judgment when they take place in front of collaborators, clients, or external audiences.
We understand that communication, especially productive communication, can be very difficult and, for most, takes plenty of practice to master. Just trying to connect and convey important information can be a managerial “win.” Strong management tradecraft, however, demands more from its practitioners. As an anonymous poet once intoned:
if wisdom’s ways you wisely seek, five things observe with care: of whom you speak, to whom you speak, and how, and when, and where.