William Ronco, Ph.D. Biotech Leadership Institute

This first part of a four-part series discusses common conversational pitfalls that could affect your career.

The Ironies

The Engineering Director fails to convince the company accountant to release the approvals needed to cover expenses for an important speaking engagement.  

The Ph.D. statistician can’t get the point across to the drug development team that the project needs a much larger sample size. 

The experienced technical expert blocks the young developer’s (excellent) suggestions to improve the quality process.

Good Ideas Get Lost

When it comes to communicating, even the smartest leaders often underperform.

It’s understandable that this occurs. The leaders are communicating complex ideas. They’re communicating to intelligent, opinionated people. They have much more training in technical skills than they do in communicating.

Still, it’s important for leaders to improve communications because so much is at stake. Too many good ideas are lost, not because of the poor quality of the idea but because of the poor quality of the way it was communicated. It’s not that leaders need to possess the communications skills of attorneys, professional salespeople or highly skilled debaters. 

The challenge is simply for leaders is to communicate at a level that does justice to the ideas that they’re communicating.

Recognizing Recurring Mistakes: A First Step

Recognizing the recurring mistakes people make when communicating provides a useful first step in improving communications effectiveness.
Mistake 1: Neglect. “Let me polish this memo a little more. I’ll find out what they think about if there’s time later on.”

Keep polishing the memo vs. talk to others about what you’ve written? It’s really not a fair contest. Polishing the memo feels like work; it results in a piece of paper, something you can touch, read, and admire. Talking to others will take important time away from improving the memo—and the talking is so indirect, so unpredictable, and so amorphous. I could really be accomplishing something instead. For example, I could make just one more revision in the fourth paragraph on the third page.

The surface mistake here is putting off the conversation. The deeper mistake is failing to recognize that, for most people, having the idea is just part of their job. If others can’t work with the idea, it’s doing little good for anyone.

Mistake 2: One-way approach. “What did they think about my idea? I don’t really know. I do know I explained it clearly.”

When people try to assess their performance in conversations, they focus on what they said. They describe in detail how they said it, how clearly they said it, why they said it, how they looked the other person in the eye when they said it, how they felt when they said it, etc. Reflecting on a conversation, people focus much on their talking than on what the talking produced, and how the talking influenced what occurred.

When we ask people how the other person reacted to what they said, they usually stare blankly, mumbling slowly, “Hmmm. I don’t really know.” 

We see many forms of one-way communications, as when people approach a conversation with the intention to convince, influence, win over or control in any form.

The one-way approach often fails outright, as many people don’t like to be convinced, influenced, won over or controlled. Even when it succeeds, the one-way approach yields limited results: perhaps compliance, but seldom commitment, enthusiasm or creativity.

Mistake 3: Blaming others. “I explained it clearly; they were just too uninformed (or biased, stubborn, close-minded, narrow-minded, etc.) to listen.”

Blaming others for communications failure is often a next step after taking a one-way approach to a conversation, and it’s easy to do. Often the people leaders are trying to convince, influence, or win over really are biased, stubborn, narrow-minded, etc.

But sometimes, just occasionally, the problem also lies equally with the person presenting the idea. Just possibly, they presented the idea with a level of arrogance, hostility and/or impatience that made it difficult for anyone to want to hear what they had to say. Just possibly.

Mistake 4: Focusing on reaching agreement / Getting Beyond Yes. “I’m relieved we finally agreed.… Too bad the agreement isn’t a very good solution to the problem.”

Reaching agreement can be a real achievement in situations where people have strong biases and complicated histories. Even in simpler situations, people fall easily into conflict, taking sides, taking a clear win-lose stance in the conversation. 

However, focusing on “getting to yes” can impede the kind of in-depth dialog that produces superior results in problem-solving and critical thinking. We can only wonder what would happen if people focused less on getting to yes and more on developing an optimal solution to the item they’re discussing.

Mistake 5: Accepting mediocre communications performance. “I know I could have done better in that conversation. I guess I’m just not a ‘communicator type’ of person.”

It’s mystifying and striking that people who demand the highest levels of performance from themselves in the technical work they perform, the sports they play, the hobbies they pursue, and even their housekeeping chores accept their continuing poor performance when it comes to communications.

Progress Forward: Improving Communications Is a Competence, Not a Mystical Event or a Character Trait

Beyond identifying recurring mistakes, it’s useful to view communications as a competence, an ability, or a skill. Yes, some aspects of communications are beyond understanding rationally, and some people possess innate communications skills they didn’t have to work hard to learn.

However, whatever one’s level of communications competence, it’s always possible to improve communications performance in the same ways people improve their performance in sports and games: with effort, smart practice, focus, and the intention to improve.

Our son Greg, a golf enthusiast, asked me to take him to a professional tournament. We went on the second of the three-day match, following a few of his favorite players from early morning practice through all eighteen holes. At the end of their round and a long, hot day, I was surprised to see that the players didn’t adjourn to the clubhouse for a shower and drinks. 

Undaunted by the work and stress of the day, they turned in their scorecards and made their way back to the driving range for another round of challenging practice. When I expressed my surprise at this to Greg, he replied, “Of course they get right back to the practice range. That’s what makes them pros.”

I can only wonder what would happen to leadership if people approached their communications competence with an attitude and effort that even roughly matched the golf pros’ approach to their game.

Director of the Biotech Leadership Institute William Ronco, Ph.D. ([email protected]), provides training and consulting to improve leadership, communications and team performance in science organizations.

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