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The Human Voice in the Age of Technology
by Terry Pearce

The predominate use of technology has redefined communication at its core, causing those of us involved in the field to re-think the distinctions that used to be so easy to make. Now, we have a vast array of choices for message delivery or for dialogue, and it makes the choice of media a taxing decision. Tradeoffs between efficiency and effectiveness are even more important to think through, when the cost of e-mail is half that of a telephone call, and a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket to that overseas location.

My field is leadership communication…the kind of communication that inspires others to take action to effect change. Most of the time I coach people in leadership positions to communicate in a way that generates commitment rather than mere compliance. My clients naturally want to deport themselves in the most efficient way, travel as little as possible, and use e-mail, voice-mail and video to their maximum advantage. Lately, however, the proliferation of easy information flow has demonstrated the value of straightforward authentic oral communication. Perhaps the most compelling supportive examples are like the ones reported in a recent Time article. Some managers, it seems, are using e-mail to apprise employees of their performance…oh yes, and to criticize them with CAPITAL LETTERS (i.e. "THIS SIMPLY MUST, REPEAT MUST, STOP"). Clearly such managers are using mechanical means to avoid the real work of the manager, to coach and help the employee become better. Many studies have reported recently on the number of messages received and sent daily via voice-mail and e-mail; But whether you believe it is 17 or 70 per person (the range of estimates), there seems to be general agreement that some messages just do not lend themselves to technology. These media may not be well-suited to the kind of communication that makes members of your staff want to work that extra hour or come up with that new idea. When trust is needed to enhance performance, there is no substitute for real-time and live human voice. In this article, I will explore why that is true and why, particularly in the high-tech environment, we need to re-dedicate ourselves to live human interaction.

What we hear
Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, did the definitive research in the 1970s on how people draw conclusions about what someone is saying. Mehrabian showed that we rely on the words for only 7% of our judgment, compared to 38% for voice quality, tone and inflection, and 55% from other physical cues. While this research spawned an entire consultant industry (the use and interpretation of body language), the data also suggests that we use a very small percentage of our faculty for making judgments when we are limited to the words (as in the case of e-mail) or even to the voice and the words (as in the case of voice mail). Accordingly, when we confine ourselves to the use of these technologies, we limit the possibilities of deeper and even different understanding with others. Most of us have been guilty of deleting an e-mail or voice mail after the first few words…"yeah, yeah, I know!" In other words, we frequently confuse hearing the content of the message with listening to the people sending it. A fellow consultant was recently putting a leadership client through a "360" review, a process in which the executive is given performance feedback from direct reports, peers and his or her boss. One of the categories was "listening," and my friend asked her client how he thought his direct reports would rate him. He replied, "I think they will say that I’m a bad listener, but if you press them, they would have to admit that I always get their content." He was right, my friend confirms. All of his direct reports said that he was a terrible listener, but they all admitted that he generally heard the content of what they were saying.

This case suggests, of course, something we all know to be true. We don’t listen to content. We comprehend content, but we listen to people. When content is the issue, a memo will suffice. Much of oral communication is about being heard, not about understanding content.

In the age of the knowledge worker, this distinction might seem irrelevant to some. After all, aren't we really trying to share and transform information as a competitive advantage? Let’s look at the business environment to see what’s true.

Loyalty at Work
First, depending on which statistics you read, the unemployment rate for technology workers is anywhere from minus 15 per cent to minus 30 per cent. One of every three or four jobs is unfilled at any given time. Further, and more significantly, there is at least a perception that these highly skilled workers are moving from company to company, portraying themselves as bundles of skill for sale to the highest bidder.

Loyalty to a company, it is said, is a thing of the past. In fact, in The 500-Year Delta, authors JimTaylor and Watts Wacker, both bona fide futurists, suggest that loyalty takes the fun out of work. "Work can be fun," they suggest, if we can only "shed the notion that any loyalty is to be given or received in a business relationship, realize that you are a freelancer moving from deal to deal even when you are in someone else’s employ, and understand that there is only one person you are working for: yourself. You’re the boss...this is freedom." [Taylor and Wacker, 1997].

In this scenario, which is becoming more and more popular with business theorists, independent people move around in parallel play, never really connecting with one another around the business as a whole, but rather connecting like bumper cars in a giant amusement park called the workplace. These players are object-oriented, moving in and out of groups to accomplish specific tasks and then moving on. Business, in this scenario, is merely a holding tank for accomplishment of objectives. And, in a world like this, information is enough. There is a premium on preciseness of input and clarity of task. " Just the facts, please." However, there is more. It is also true that there has never been more need for loyalty in a company. The competitive advantage based on product innovation is fleeting at best. What used to be called models that changed annually, are now called versions that change daily. The only product advantage that is sustainable is a major leap. Competitors can copy your product or even enhance it in a heartbeat, so the premium is on fast upgrades and quantum breakthroughs.

This kind of production and application of knowledge requires that people work well together, share knowledge and a sense of urgency. Businesses need commitment, not merely compliance. Everyone has to participate. Ownership is not just a financial concept, it needs to be a psychic reality as well. In order to generate the kind of effort and results that are needed in today’s environment, employees need to "own" the business.

So in a world in which there is little loyalty, loyalty itself becomes a competitive advantage. One of the central questions of business is how to generate that environment of commitment. The question has become so pervasive that Gary Hamel, arguably the defining authority on business strategy today, suggests that the central role of the strategist is not to do the strategic plan, or even to try to forecast the products that will be successful. It is to find ways of generating an environment where "new voices can have new conversations, forming new perspectives, to generate new passion and conviction, to foster the raft of new ideas" that will be needed [Hamel and Scholes, 1997]. Innovation itself is the central competitive advantage.

How do we generate this kind of environment where people generate conviction and passion?

The Spirit of the Leader Enter leadership, and enter oral communication.

Like it or not, commitment and passion are spiritual words. They are not generated from the body or the mind. We do not merely "figure out" commitment, it is an integrated phenomena, encompassing our entire selves, mind and heart. Commitment gives rise to passion, the driving and exciting force in which meaning reveals itself. Who has not felt the surge of excitement that comes with knowing that you can actually make a difference in the world? We need only look to our volunteer activities to discover that we are committed to what we believe in, to the causes that create meaning in our lives. Is this too much to ask of our company? Not at all. In fact, great ones provide lots of opportunity for such expression, right in the workplace.

How can this meaning be generated? Can compelling vision be communicated via memo and brochure? Apparently not, even in the best companies. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras examined this very point. "Some managers are uncomfortable with expressing emotion about their dreams, but it’s the passion and emotion that will attract and motivate others" [Collins and Porras, 1994].

Charles Schwab is one of the most successful growth companies in the financial services business. The company has had a strong vision since its inception: "to provide the most ethical and useful brokerage services in America." Charles Schwab, the man, is an ICON of consumer advocacy, and has always operated the company by the values of fairness, empathy, responsiveness, striving for excellence, teamwork and trustworthiness. Not only are the vision and values written down, they are inscribed on a wall hanging that every San Francisco employee sees when he or she comes to work every day.

In 1994, while the company was growing at a compound rate of more than 20%, it conducted its first employee opinion survey. The results showed three rather startling findings. Many of Schwab’s 5,000 people didn’t know the direction of the company, were not sure that they trusted senior management, and did not think that their voices were being heard.

After the initial shock, David Pottruck, then President and Chief Operating Officer, initiated a 10-month program of oral communication. Every member of Schwab’s senior management team was asked to contribute to the renewal of the vision and values. In a series of offsite meetings, every word was discussed, scrubbed and re-scrubbed. This group of more than 80 people then developed a list of ten strategic priorities that were most critical to meeting the new vision, and toasted their commitment to these ideals and priorities in a ritual at the Sheraton Hotel in San Francisco.

This was only the beginning. In the ensuing two months, Chuck Schwab and Dave Pottruck spoke to every single employee in the company in town hall meetings and through two-way satellite hookups, explaining the vision, values and strategic priorities, and asking each employee to examine their own tasks in the company for alignment. Each employee was given the opportunity to ask questions, probe for sincerity and find in these two men the authenticity necessary for commitment.

In the next survey taken a few months later, the responses to all three issues--direction of the company, having a voice and trusting senior management-- improved by more than thirty points. The company results speak for themselves. It has since continued its compound rate of growth, and it enjoys a rich reputation as trustworthy in an generally selfish industry. Both its employees and its customers are loyal to the firm.

The voice is as distinctive as our fingerprint. The voice carries us with it, the unedited version of what is inside of us. It is traditionally, "like the eyes and the face, a window to the soul" [Whyte, 1994]. It conveys more than the words, it conveys the spirit of the person speaking, and therefore carries with it the meaning in the words being said.

In a world of faster and faster transfer of information, meaning becomes a fleeting luxury. Leaders can only convey the real meaning of their work with the voice.

Trusting one another
If compelling vision is the fuel for an environment of commitment, real teamwork is the day-to-day grease. William Miller reported on the research of the leader of the labs at Hewlett Packard, Frank Carrubba. When he took over the labs in 1987, Carrubba conducted a study of the most significant differences between teams that failed to achieve their objectives, teams that were successful, and teams that produced extraordinary results. When he compared marginally successful teams with consistently superior teams, he concluded that they were reasonably equal in terms of talent, motivation and at the ability to create realistic goals. As to the difference: ‘the teams that really stood out…had a relationship with others that was personal…that allowed people to be themselves, without struggling to represent themselves as being something that they weren’t.’

Can such relationships be generated with memos? No. Miller sums up Carrubba’s findings "…the difference between ‘plain’ success and extraordinary results was found in communicating with integrity and authenticity" [Miller, 1993].

Taylor and Wacker [1997, p.113] reach the same conclusion. "Trust counts," they say, as one of the fundamental coins of the new corporate realm. They contend that both clarity and depth are required for trust to develop. And they conclude, as I do, that trust is not established through statistics alone, but rather through myth, through live storytelling.

Telling stories, like poetry and other oral traditions, allow us to suspend judgment and listen to an experience as a whole. When was the last time you listened to a storyteller, and then remarked, "I disagree?" Of course, this is nonsensical. Stories are about our human experience. Essentially, they form the foundation of what we trust.

Kouzes and Posner [1995] report some research conducted by organizational sociologists Joanne Martin and Melanie Powers to explore the power of stories.

"They compared the persuasiveness of four different methods of convincing a group of MBA students in their study that a particular company practiced a policy of avoiding layoffs. In one situation, Martin and Powers used only a story to persuade people. In the second, they presented statistical data that showed that the company had significantly less involuntary turnover than its competitors. In the third, they used the statistics and the story. And in the fourth, they used a straightforward policy statement written by an executive of the company. The students in the groups that were given the story believed the claim about the policy more than any of the other groups. Other research studies also demonstrate that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it’s first presented in the form of an example or story." Stories, only once removed from experience, will become more and more important as sources of meaning. As information itself becomes more plentiful and as facts are used to prove and disprove reality, it is the story and the telling of it by a real human being with a voice that will become the arbiter of truth. As we continue down this road of technology, paradox, speed and chaos, we will meet, head-on, the issues of our own spirit, the way in which we express ourselves as human beings at work. Will we jump from place to place, taking the symbolic rewards, ignoring meaning and the power of relationships? I don’t think so. Personal authentic oral communication will actually be a hallmark of people and companies who lead and thrive in these conditions. Information is a commodity and too plentiful. However, technology will ultimately help us decide which information is really essential to help us with the decisions that we need to make. The real frontier, then, is not what to do with the next and fastest chip, but how to manage the freedom it gives us in an obviously interdependent world. As we are testing the breadth of the application of technology, we will also be plumbing the depths of the human spirit and trying to bring more of our best selves into play in our chosen work. The voice, the ultimate expression of that spirit, will be the central access point.

  • Taylor and Wacker, The 500-Year Delta, pp. 207-208, Harber
  • Business, New York, 1997.
    Hamel and Scholes, The quest for new wealth.
  • Leader, Drucker Foundation, 1997.
    Collins and Porras, Built to Last, p. 234, Harper Business, New
  • York, 1994.
    Whyte, The Heart Aroused, p. 124, Currency Doubleday, New York,
  • 1994. Miller, Quantum Quality, p. 24, AMA, 1993.
    Taylor and Wacker, The 500-Year Delta, p. 113, Harper Busines,
  • New York, 1997.
    Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge, p. 226,
  • Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995
Copyright Terry Pearce. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole, or in part, without the express written consent of the author.

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