Why Won't They Listen? in Part One of His Series on Safety Communications, Loss Control Expert Larry Hansen Reviews Why So Many Communication Efforts Fail and Shares Three Truths about Effective Communication

Article excerpt

Ask any group of business managers to name the one organizational problem that frustrates them most, and which is often at the core of operational snafus, and I'll bet more often than not you'll hear: "Poor communication!" That goes for accident and injury costs as well. The National Council of Compensation Insurers has estimated that as much as 40 percent of workers' compensation costs can be linked to how an employer communicates with, and responds to, worker injuries.

Communications expert John Drebinger says: "You attain the next level of excellence by changing who you are. And you change who you are by changing what you do." When it comes to designing, implementing and administrating an effective safety communications process, researchers suggest that many organizations need to take a closer look at what they do.

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With few exceptions, poor communication stands out in both performance literature and management practice as the number one cause of substandard performance in many organizations. It's cited frequently for: low productivity, late delivery, poor quality, low morale, workplace accidents and most other undesirable events impacting profitability. In A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters and Nancy Austin concluded: "Nonfunctional communication is at the heart of most management problems." Most operations executives agree, allocating millions annually to improve the situation. Yet in spite of this recognition and huge financial commitment, communication problems persist.

In titling this article, I actually faced this exact dilemma. I'll bet most readers, to this point, assumed I was referring to 'employees' as those who just won't listen. Oh well, another case of poor communication! The title, and theme of this article, addresses effective communication as a management opportunity--not an employee problem. It is managers that need to listen (and learn), say researchers and management experts such as Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who identifies communication as the fifth habit: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

When it comes to communication and credibility, employees in America's workplaces have some very definite opinions, and they're not very complimentary. Spend a fair amount of time in employee lunchrooms or break areas, and eventually you'll hear this all too common satirical question: "How can you tell when an executive is lying?" Answer in unison: "Their lips are moving!"

According to the findings of an ASCLU workplace survey published in the August 1997 issue of Fast Company, 93 percent of respondents acknowledged that they lie regularly; 56 percent admitted they have been pressured to act unethically, and 48 percent have committed illegal acts. Last December, National Public Radio's Web site listing the top 10 strategy and business books was introduced this way: "Not surprisingly, books about scandals dominated the best-selling business books of 2003. Perhaps the Budweiser Lizard was insightfully correct in his observation: 'Never send a weasel to do a ferret's job.'" (Oh, how I love that commercial.)

Wrong Advice

Research on organizational communication suggests that the majority of advice given to business executives on how to effectively communicate with frontline employees is wrong. To move information through an organization, many companies establish corporate communications departments that focus on word-smithing, format and technology to facilitate internal messaging. The answer to many organizational communication problems, however, doesn't lie in the message content or the technology, but rather in the methods employed.

Think about the traditional communication mindset in your own organization. What methods are most frequently used by upper management to communicate safety information to frontline employees? Make a list of these techniques, and then arrange them in order of perceived effectiveness. …