Treasury Today Country Profiles in association with Citi

That’s not what I meant! Communication errors and how to avoid them

Business people in a technology meeting with data overlay

The way in which we communicate with others speaks volumes about our professionalism and our ability to work with others. For many treasurers, the extension of the role into the wider business – and the inclusion as a strategic partner – means sharper communication skills are essential.

Good communication is just common sense isn’t it? Certainly, there are those amongst us who are natural communicators, apparently for whom no social situation is awkward, and no message ever misconstrued.

But admit it: most of us have at some time sent an email without checking its content then felt the sudden panic as we realise that we really should not have sent it. With the prevalence of social media tools such as Twitter and WhatsApp, the immediacy of messaging means it is even easier to make communication errors. These can sometimes come back and bite years after the fact.

Despite the view that ‘natural’ communicators walk amongst us, our communication skills are not always as sharp as we like to think they are. Everyone can benefit from a spot of revision from time to time.

Staying professional

There is a big difference between being talked at and being engaged in a conversation. For all forms of communication, and through all channels, this is true. Communication, by definition, is a two-way process, with every message requiring a sender and receiver. Being a skilled communicator is not natural; it comes with practice.

Some people are more adept (or rather, more practiced) than others but in business and everyday life communication is a necessary skill. It helps build trust and respect, and it forges deeper connections between people which, ultimately, gets things done.

In a commercial context, the idea that communication is easy if the recipients know who you are and why you are doing things, has some mileage. But failure to consider the nuances of effective communication runs the risk of alienating the intended audience.

Former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong (he is now CEO of a part of AOL parent, Verizon) made an unpopular decision worse back in 2013 when he tried to defuse staff tension around possible job losses. During a conference call with the 1,000 or so affected employees, he aimed to boost morale and move the conversation on. Instead, he fired the company’s creative director, Abel Lenz, in front of those employees for a perceived wrong-doing (he was recording the event). The public nature of the termination was described by an observer as “shameful and disgusting” behaviour.

Regardless of Lenz’s transgression, Armstrong turned what should have been a reassuring message into one of abject negativity and, in so doing, caused tremendous harm to his own credibility as a professional communicator.

This debacle demonstrates that although what Armstrong did was, in his own words, unfair to the former employee at a “human level”, even some senior executives can occasionally be prone to responding in an all too human way, lashing out in frustration. This is something that great communicators know not to do.

Everyone gets angry from time to time but reacting without taking time to form a rational response can prove disastrous. This is especially concerning where electronic channels enable unintentionally bad messages to ‘go viral’, helping to form the opinion that the individual lacks self-control and emotional intelligence and are not to be trusted. Respect goes out the window.

Improving communication

We’ve all had the experience of getting it wrong, so how can communication be improved? According to web resources such as Mindtools, Entrepreneur Europe and Lifehacker, there are several quite simple steps we can all take to improve our chances of getting our message across in a positive way.

Assertiveness not aggression

Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own or other people’s views, needs or rights, but doing so in a calm and positive way. Assertiveness means having the confidence to say ‘no’ when necessary, yet still helping to maintain relationships on an even keel. In essence, it takes you closer to what you want to achieve whilst considering the views of others.

“I think more than ever it is imperative to have strong professional relationships in order to stay abreast of developments. Every treasurer should be able to demonstrate strong communication skills as the role becomes more connected with the business.”

Helen Hanby, Director, International Treasury, Biogen

In the same way that confidence quickly becomes arrogance if left unchecked, over-assertiveness can morph into aggression. Aggression is all about getting your own way, regardless of other people’s views or even rights. It might get immediate results but at what cost?

Assertiveness, as with all communication skills, comes with practice. Begin by confronting mildly tense situations where you perceive the threat as minimal yet worth tackling. Learn to set reasonable limits and how to say ‘no’. Respect yourself and let go of the guilt of saying no. Practice getting to the point and clearly articulating the real issue; don’t confuse people with the minutiae, or by taking a convoluted route to your point.

Tackling difficult conversations head-on

Avoiding an issue can allow it to take on a life of its own. Gossip and speculation are often rife in offices; the longer a problem is left, the more out of control it can become.

When communicating a difficult issue, such as when dealing with a problematic member of staff, using a tool such as the Situation – Behaviour – Impact (SBI) model can help focus the conversation and give it a positive direction.

Preparation is vital, but it helps the subject understand the context of the situation, it describes the specific observable behaviours being addressed, and it highlights the impact of the subject’s behaviour on you or others without making assumptions. Rather than creating conflict, SBI offers the subject a clear and neutral view of the problem, giving them the opportunity to respond positively.

Keyboard warrior

Sacking someone in front of their peers has damaging consequences for all, as AOL’s Tim Armstrong, referred to previously, discovered when his PR team hurriedly urged him to issue an apology to all employees.

The opposite of the Armstrong approach is hiding behind an email to deliver bad news. In 2017, the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission were reported as having sacked several striking staff by email, giving them one day to clear their desks. In another case, back in 2014, Michael Laudrup was dismissed as manager from Premier League football club, Swansea, claiming he was sacked by email. In both cases, the action was subsequently denied by the accused but by then the damage was done.

These kinds of story make a big media splash because people recognise the inappropriateness of delivering bad news from a distance. Whether the old maxim that ‘the truth should never get in the way of a good story’ is one that applies or not, such events suggest weakness of management and cause employee outrage.

The fact is that written communication channels can fail to soften the blow of difficult messages because they cannot carry non-verbal cues, such as body language or tone of voice, that in-person communication offers. Furthermore, there is no opportunity for the message sender to deal immediately with any misunderstanding arising from that communication. The solution is easy: bad news should be delivered sensitively and in person.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Any communication that is intended to have an impact should be subject to proper planning and preparation. Slide presentations, for example, need to suit the context. It sounds obvious but loading complex graphs and long strings of text may not suit an audience in a large hall where the back rows can’t see them.

Similarly, offering interminably long talks to a post-lunch conference audience rarely gets the message across. Yet it happens. Be mindful too that because emails don’t carry contextualising non-verbal cues, it is very easy for the message to be misconstrued.

“Well-developed soft skills are essential to keep staff motivated and happy. As CFO, I rely heavily on them. I want them to feel responsible and be part of the business because if it grows and does well, we all grow and do well! The ability to read people and make good judgements does not come from sitting behind a desk. It comes from travelling and meeting people.”

Dheeraj ‘Raj’ Chadha, CFO, TeleAdapt

When speaking publicly, rehearsal can bring more fluency to the nervous (and alert the speaker to expressions they may stumble on). Being terrified may require more work to overcome. For written work, always sense-check the appropriateness of content before sending, especially an email.

Communicators should plan what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. We can’t all be great orators or writers, but we can all take the time to prepare a credible, intelligent, and hopefully compelling message. As part of the preparation, it helps to understand and respond to the audience’s likely emotional response as well as their intellectual take on your message.

The power of proofing

Where treasurers increasingly have contact with other functions and external partners, creating the right impression through the written word is important. It may be the first contact and, as the saying goes, first impressions last.

Grammatical errors and poor spelling are signs of carelessness for many people. Proof-read everything but don’t rely on a spell-checker to bail you out; it may correct the word but is the word correct?

For important documents use a second pair of eyes prior to sending. If you have the time, once you have finished your work, walk away from it for a while. Re-reading it later can reveal some fundamental errors.

Everyone is different

Trying to deliver your message across multiple platforms and audiences without tailoring it to the different needs and expectations of your audience is risky. As a treasurer, you can use complex expressions and ideas related to the profession and safely assume that your audience will understand. Try using the same technical language with the board, CEO, or your procurement team, and you will spend much of your time explaining yourself. Or simply fail to communicate.

Jargon and the overuse of acronyms is a sure-fire way to lose the interest of a non-partisan audience. Explaining everything to a knowledgeable audience is patronising and a waste of their time.

Bear in mind too that in a globalised business, cross-border trade can mean cross-cultural communication. Don’t make assumptions; learn about your audience. An understanding of the people with whom you wish to communicate may suggest a rethink of your message, tone and approach, timing and even expectations, to avoid mis-communication.

Learn to listen

Listening is a vital part of communication. The definition of listening offered by Richard Mullender, a former hostage negotiator, is the “identification, selection and interpretation of key words that turn information into intelligence”.

The key to successful listening is to listen for the speaker’s motivators, values and beliefs. Conversations should be used to learn from others, not as a platform to demonstrate your own intellect.

Sound specialist Julian Treasure advises people to adjust their listening ‘position’ according to need. Practice by listening to a speech, trying to focus on a different angle such as from a critical or empathetic perspective and comparing outcomes.

Treasury offers the acronym ‘RASA’ as a guide to better listening: Receive by making eye contact with and focusing on the other person; Appreciate by giving indications of acknowledgment through cues like head nods or short vocal replies; Summarise by getting the other person to clarify the point of anything that doesn’t register; and Ask by posing follow-up questions on whatever you just learned.

Read it right

Correct interpretation of body language is vital if subtle clues are to be incorporated into the overall communication experience. The web resource, Learning Mind suggests successful communication requires the constant observation of the gestures, facial expressions and postures of the recipient to build a fuller picture.

Placing the entire communication – verbal and non-verbal – in context is vital if real meaning is to be derived. Although folded arms and crossed legs can convey a closed mind within the recipient, there may be a practical reason for this stance: they may simply be cold.

Individuals often display idiosyncratic positive and negative non-verbal signals too, such as a certain movement when in a certain situation (tugging an earlobe when nervous, for example). Distinguishing these from everyday movements can help understand their mood in future encounters. Some people are well-versed in body-language and could be deceiving you but observable contradictions may exist.

Although body language is not an exact science, humans will either display a state of comfort (satisfaction, happiness, relaxation) or discomfort (displeasure, stress, anxiety). The difference may not be obvious, or the individual may be trying to cover up their feelings. By correctly interpreting their state of mind, in context, it becomes easier to tailor the communication to match.

Don’t go viral

Given the complex nature of communication, it is hardly surprising that mistakes are made. But with a little understanding of what is involved in getting a message across successfully, the chances of accidentally ‘going viral’ at your expense are minimised.

More importantly, understanding and applying the different elements of positive communication helps to ensure professionalism and respect are maintained and, ultimately, things get done.