Saturday, October 3, 2015

Communication and Integrity

A few days ago I sat in on interviews of candidates being considered for a first line supervisor’s job in an organization where entry level positions require advanced technical education and experience.  Two words were used many times by each of the candidates: communication and integrity.

Better communication, good communication, communicate with my team: how many ways could one describe communication as essential to effective leadership and yet never say what it means?  
Integrity was the other word. A good supervisor, each of them said, needs to have integrity.  But what is integrity?  For most it seemed to have something to do with moral standards, knowing right from wrong, having a moral compass.  But if your compass points north and mine points south, we’re going to have a problem.  If communication is important but only vaguely understood, integrity is packed with strong emotional content that is deeply felt but hard to put into words.

It appears that communication and integrity are seen to be among the most important characteristics of a good supervisor by those who aspire to become supervisors.  I suspect that their emphasis on them was also a thinly veiled commentary on current supervisors and upper management.

No doubt current supervisors and upper management would lean on the same two words as essential to effective leadership.  Given that, perhaps more senior levels of management should get serious about educational training that will help with a deeper understanding of what communication and integrity mean and how to go about being a person of integrity who communicates well in the role of supervisor.  As a substitute for that hard work, too many upper level managers rely on whatever motivational tools are present at the time, which amount to little more than memos and posters urging integrity and better communication, along with the occasional workshop led by an inspirational speaker whose lasting effect has the duration of a Mayfly.  

A few provisional definitions might help to guide in a more useful direction.

Communication is complex, but broken down into component parts, it’s not that complicated.  It involves a few mechanical, sociological, psychological, and cultural elements.  Mechanically, the brain can think faster than it can listen or read, and it’s always interpreting communication input in ways that is guaranteed to distort what the communicator believes is being said or written.  Mechanically, we rely on systems and protocols that are both necessary and unreliable.  We can always do better even if we can never quite get it right. 

Sociologically, pieces of communicated information are commodities to be acquired, saved, invested, and spent for the benefit of who?  Often it is for the benefit one’s own self interests that are perceived to be in competition with the self interests of others.  Sometimes it is for the benefit the group’s interests in competition with those of other groups.  Less often it is used altruistically for the benefit of all, whoever all may be.

Psychologically, communication is always filtered by whatever prejudices one has about the communicator or the subject of the communication.  Honest self awareness of what that means is hard to come by.  Most of us are not conscious of our own filtering processes, and are only marginally aware of the power of our prejudices.  

Culturally, the internet, talk radio, 24 hour cable news, and smart phones have created forms of communication and ways of understanding that are less than twenty years old.  Yet they have enormous influence on individuals and at every level of society.  

So the question is, given all of that, how does one become a more effective communicator in the context of supervision?   The practical answers to what is needed to be as successful as possible is often broader and deeper than we like to admit.  Posters, memos, and inspirational speakers can’t cut it and are a waste of money.  However, if you insist on continuing down that path please call me.  My fees are absurdly high which should assure you that I can be very inspirational.

On the other hand, practical models for understanding the dynamics of communication, and some basic tools for increasing the probability that the information A has and that B needs can be effectively transmitted  are things that can be made a key element of any educational training program.

Integrity is a more difficult subject.  As the dictionary says, it is the quality of being honest and having strong moral values.  From antiquity it implied a sense of wholeness; not having, as the bible might say, a divided heart.  The problem comes with using one’s own unreflective moral assumptions as the standard against which to measure other people’s integrity.  Moreover, what many people call moral values are nothing other than the culturally accepted norms of an earlier generation that is popularly believed to be the way it has always been – until today when every thing is going to hell.  

When the idea of integrity is used that way it becomes a significant cause of much of the polarization we see in our political environment, and in our personal relationships.  It would be better for integrity to be understood as the quality of trustworthiness without the element of deception, by which I mean that there are some people whom I can always trust to be deceptive in their dealings with others.  They are trustworthy, but not in the right way.  It would also be helpful to better understand the common use of integrity as an adjective for what one thinks is morally right, and that means a more honest examination of what one believes to be morally true and why he or she believes it.   An exercise like that is difficult but can produce a little more room for appreciative flexibility in honoring what the other believes to be moral even if it differs from your beliefs. 

Obviously the question about what integrity means can take one down a rabbit’s hole where philosophy professors hide in wait to capture the unwary and never let them go.  Surely there are others competent to guide examinations of integrity with managers and supervisors in terms that make sense to their work environments.


My recommendation is to turn to local resources, possibly faculty at the local community college; women and men who know the local customs well and have the proven ability to translate academic knowledge into practical training.  Moreover, it’s important to begin with chief executives and other top management before submitting first line supervisors to that kind of educational training.  If top management can’t or won’t take the time, why should anyone else?

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