A Misdiagnosis In Communication

My local Chapter of the American Society of Training and Development was conducting a membership drive. They conduct several a year, each drive targeting a different demographic. Our membership drives are staffed by Chapter members who graciously volunteer their time. This isn’t a big project, nor is it glamourous. Its appeal, and why most people choose to volunteer for this activity rather than projects that provide a bit more exposure, is that it takes up little of their time, and is over quickly. One of the volunteers for our most recent drive is a co-worker of mine, and a dear friend, who I had recruited for this project. Naturally, I was curious to see how things had gone.
“Fine, great!” she told me. “I was a bit uncomfortable at first, even with the script you’d given me, but after I got through the first half of my call list, I didn’t need the script anymore, and just became myself. Only…”

Only what?

She was embarrassed to admit that she hadn’t been prepared to answer some of the questions she was asked.

I asked her what questions she had trouble with. It was a short list that could easily go onto any frequently asked question sheet for membership drives. What you get out of membership. How they could join online. Top of the list? How much membership cost.

Our volunteer had been sent forth to recruit members – armed with a script, but not sufficient knowledge about the organization to answer the most basic questions.

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Do you REALLY want me to communicate more?

This could readily be classified as a communication problem within the organization – and was, in some conversations I had with peers about my friend’s challenge. The project manager hadn’t shared what the volunteer needed to know. If only the project manager had communicated better, the volunteer would have been better prepared. 

It’s a classification that I would challenge. Frequently, I find that when the diagnosis is poor communication, people just start talking more but accomplishing the same amount of confusion.

In this case, our volunteer did receive plenty of communication – she got a goal: recruit new members. She received a list of numbers to dial with names attached. She got a script to follow. She received what was necessary to complete her goal. What else could have been communicated?

Stuff about the organization, one might answer. Perhaps a FAQ sheet that included answers to all those common questions (that’s still not communication, by the way. It is a valuable resource). Yet, if this volunteer had been a member of the organization for a while, what does it mean that she couldn’t answer the questions posed to her by those interested in the same organization of which she is a member? But more important, as a volunteer, what does it mean that she knew less about the organization than our Chapter President? Even for as small a project as hers, our volunteer needed to represent our Chapter with as much confidence as the leaders charged with moving it forward.

That’s more than just communication – that’s building an infrastructure that ensures each team member knows what the others are doing, and how everyone’s actions benefit the organization as a whole.

So here’s my challenge to those who jump to communication as the organizational problem — poor communication is often a symptom obscuring a deeper root cause, so check again. What is it you’re trying to communicate?   When was the appropriate time to have made that communication?  The answers may reveal a different problem. And if you can’t clearly answer both those questions, delve deeper.

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