One of the common misperceptions in the military is that communication is easy because everyone gives and follows orders. That is likely because most people only see the military in combat movies where there is not a lot of time for lengthy discussions. A solid and clear communication chain of command is required when time is of the essence, but combat situations are certainly not the norm. Under most circumstances, the military looks more like a normal business than a battlefield. In those circumstances the military faces the same communication challenges as the business sector. One of the biggest challenges is effective messaging and the ability to cascade that message down the chain of command. Whether the information is good or bad, the same best practices apply. Below are some guidelines that were helpful during my 20 years as a Navy Test Pilot and are still helpful today.
The most important aspects of effectively cascading a message down through your organization is trust. Trust is built over time by being consistent, fair and transparent with your team. Trust must be established and nurtured during the easy times so that it can provide a solid foundation for communication during the hard times. You cannot bank trust during times of crisis.
To effectively cascade a message through your organization, it must be clear, concise and unambiguous. Famous writers from Mark Twain to Benjamin Franklin have all noted that if they had more time, they could have written a shorter message. Take the time!
When passing your message down the chain, meet with your direct subordinates and explain to them the intent of the message – “the why,” and then sit down and listen. This allows your team to provide more detailed information that you do not have at your level and it allows the opportunity for them to provide suggestions and solutions to the issues at hand – both of which may improve the message.
If you are passing down a message that is difficult, challenging or asking for change, you must have credibility – a big part of trust. “Walking the talk” is still the most important aspect of credibility. The old phrase “do it because I told you so” did not work with our parents and it does not work with us now. Always remember that your team will listen to your words, but they will believe your actions. Your workforce is smart and they know that your actions are the best indication of what you really want them to do – be a good example.
When you’re the one receiving the message after your boss gave you the opportunity to voice your opinion, you must now pass the message down to your team. Recognize that your boss has access to a lot of information “from above” that you don’t and trust that he or she took what they already knew, incorporated your insights and made a decision in the best interest of the entire team. A good leader will take the resultant message, make it their own and take the same steps to cascade that message further down the chain.
Lastly, the best way to confirm the effectiveness of cascading your message is to get out into the workplace and talk with your team. Find someone that is two or three levels down the chain and ask them what they have heard. By working your way both up and down the chain of command, you can see where there are breakdowns in communication. The other great benefit of this verification method is that you are taking the time to interact, support and listen to your team.
The common thread with all of these communication best practices is personal interaction before, during and after the messaging process. While we have all become accustomed to sending emails to announce new company policies and guidelines, emails will never match the sincerity and effectiveness of good ole person-to-person communication.
Terry Barrett, Commander USN (ret.)
Currently serving as Chief Strategy Officer, CAVU-Intl