The Game of Telephone: Why Leaders Need a Strategic Communications Plan
By Meredith Courtney, VP, Client Solutions
As a kid, did you ever play the game of telephone? You know, when a bunch of friends sit in a row and whisper messages in one another’s ear, only to find out that what the first person said was dramatically skewed once it reached the final person? I remember childhood friends snickering in delight as a simple statement such as “Let’s ride bikes to school” would somehow turn into “Jess thinks Mike is cool.” (And poor unknowing Jess would turn bright red in embarrassment while the other kids teased her about her new crush…)
In graduate school, I took part in a more-mature version of the game during a class on Group Dynamics. We were tasked with solving a problem by group consensus. Our group sat in a chain, and the rule was that you could only speak to the person directly in front of or behind you. The leader in front started the conversation, and ideas were passed back and forth along the line.
I was second to last in this lineup and can vividly remember the feeling of being frustrated, left out, and in the dark. Sitting at the back of the row, it took a long, long, long time to hear about the conversation happening at the top. We “outcasts” knew something was happening and that it had an impact on us. We whispered “I wonder if they’ve considered this…” or “What do you think they’re talking about?”
And much like the game of telephone, the messages coming down the line from the leader were ultimately skewed before they finally reached us poor souls in the back. We struggled to understand the problem and the framework set up by the leader. And while we thought we had a few worthwhile suggestions, our ideas didn’t survive in the chain of communication.
This exercise stuck with me as a telling example of failures in linear, top-down communication. The painfully slow process of passing messages up and down the line created frustration, redundancy, and bottlenecks.
The parallel to organizations is clear. What often happens when a new strategy or large-scale initiative is launched by leadership or management? Employees might catch word that something big is happening, but the communication is so slow in reaching the “bottom” that they’re left frustrated and judgmental by the time they’re brought into the loop. And, the leaders’ carefully-crafted messages about the initiative or strategy are stuck in the “game of telephone purgatory” for far too long. Ultimately, the strategy gets lost in translation.
We’ve helped companies conduct “communications audits.” They’re fascinating. Often the leaders believe that open, clear communication is happening. Down in the trenches, though, people feel left out, in the dark and unsure about the business strategy. For example:
- One SLT we worked with thought they had consensus around a growth strategy, but it was discovered that everyone was interpreting the notion of “growth” very differently due to inconsistent communication. Projects were stalled because people were interpreting the purpose or priorities quite differently.
- Another executive team thought their “open-door policy” was understood and appreciated as part of their organization’s culture, but a survey revealed that people were longing for more face-to-face communication with senior leaders and wanted less reliance on the rumor mill.
In this age of transparency, do your employees really feel they have an opportunity to collaborate on solutions and contribute innovative ideas? Do you have metrics to confirm that your messages are reaching key people and having the desired impact?
Encourage your organization to hang up the “telephone” and create channels that encourage real-time, un-skewed communication between all parties. You’ll see a dramatic impact in the ability to solve problems more quickly, and your organization will be infused with innovative ideas to take your company into the future.