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In Change Situations, Communication Efficiency Is Not the Same as Communication Effectiveness

Stephen Billing, December 16, 2009

In which I conclude that efficiency of communication may well work against effectiveness of communication in organisational change situations.

There is an old saw that says that efficiency (or management) is doing things right, with effectiveness (or leadership) being doing the right things. I am sure you have come across this before.

I’m not enamoured of this simplistic bromide, having wondered before on this blog whether is in fact such a thing as leadership. (Search on "leadership," or click on the "leadership" tags or categories to find the threads).

I started to ponder on what this might mean in relation to communication.

If we took the idea of efficient communication, what would it mean? Email is quite efficient – it’s just a matter of typing it and sending it. Twitter and text messages are even more efficient. In this sense, being efficient equates with being "less effort." And then it occurred to me, that this refers to less effort for the sender of the message.

I have a friend though, who regards a phone call as more efficient than a series of texts or emails, say when trying to schedule a meeting. So after a couple of texts or emails about suitable times, he’ll call, saying it’s easier that way. Perhaps he’s also thinking about the effectiveness of the communication – in a phone call he can get it resolved and get a commitment to a time, coming up with alternatives quickly based on the reaction of the other person.

What about effective communication? What would that be? I guess from the perspective of the sender receiver model of communication, you would say that effective communication would be that in which the receiver gets the same message as the receiver intended. So, effective communication has much more consideration of the receiver than the idea of efficient communication, which seems to be more related to the sender’s convenience.

Thinking about this idea of effective communication, I think it is not so much a matter of the accurate transmission of a message, as it is about understanding the response you have received.

In this way of thinking about it, effective communication would be achieved when the parties were satisfied that they had agreed on the meaning of the gesture and response involved.

In any one interaction, it might take several attempts to reach this point of both parties being satisfied that agreement on the meaning had been reached. Many of our interactions actually never reach this point – for example, I might go away from a fight with my partner convinced that he doesn’t understand me.

I think effective communication requires genuine attempts to understand each other, and so repeating yourself, paraphrasing and summarising are all used in the process of coming to understand the meaning of what you are negotiating. When people are coming to grips with proposals for organisational change, effective communication requires methods like paraphrasing, that employ redundancy or duplication, rather than efficient communicating of a message in the shortest time or least amount of effort possible.

Efficiency of communication and effectiveness of communication are certainly not the same thing in organisational change. Further, quests for efficiency in communication may well work against the effectiveness of your communication about change.



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