Whether you’re a doctor explaining a diagnosis, a salesperson calling a client, or a construction worker mid-swing in demolition, almost every job requires communication.
Regardless of industry, company size, or location, it’s a critical part of doing business. But often, it takes a supporting role in business strategy. It’s the person on the movie set, walking back and forth on the sidewalk behind the main scene: you know you need them there, but you don’t pay much attention to anything else about them.
Today more than ever, communication needs to be your lead actor. As businesses across the world work through this pandemic, we’re all just winging it — CEOs, managers, and workers alike. Those who work on the front lines are forced to put their own lives at risk. Some who rely on face-to-face human interaction are losing their jobs entirely. Others are attempting to adjust to remote work, fewer customers, or limited resources.
There’s no playbook for keeping your business afloat during times of uncertainty, and by the nature of the word uncertainty, there never will be. But as many leaders are realizing now, communication is the common thread for all of us. When nothing else in the world is what you’ve forecasted, strong communication processes can be the differentiating factor that gets your business through it.
Perhaps one of humanity’s most remarkable examples of communication dates back to the 15th century in the Inca Empire. They created a role in society to enable clear, fast communication. These people were called Chasquis.
Like a larger than life game of telephone, Chasquis sprinted over mountains and through valleys to relay messages from person to person. Often covering 150 miles in a single trip, they warned other villages when enemies approached, passed on agricultural discoveries, and shared medical remedies.
One of the reasons the empire succeeded was not just that they had the Chasquis to facilitate communication — it was their unrivaled accuracy, clarity, and speed.
Fortunately, we have plenty of ways to communicate at work today. From email to phone calls, video conferences to chat threads, and countless other tools, a conversation can be as effortless as murmuring “Hey Siri…” or hitting Enter. What many leaders fail to recognize is that it’s not just about having the ability to communicate with our teams and our customers. Having too many methods of unregulated communication can even lead to a business’ demise. It’s the clarity, accuracy, and cadence of our communication that matters.
Communication is a unique and precious human ability. In Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, he explained how genetic mutations in humans 70,000 years ago spurred a Cognitive Revolution. During this time, homo sapiens developed the ability to think up imaginary concepts and communicate them to others. Harari wrote that communication is a pivotal trait that has allowed humanity to grow and thrive.
But in business, we often underestimate the impact of importance of communication, both internally with our teams and externally with our customers, partners, and communities. We automate responses to customers, treating humans like ticket numbers. We make them wait hours or days for answers. With our teams, we bombard each other with messages, failing to set up guidelines and processes for communicating with context and care. We expect answers in real-time, regardless of competing schedules and priorities. When we neglect communication in these ways at work, we lose a little piece of what makes us human.
Businesses inevitably live through peacetime and wartime, as famously written by Ben Horowitz. Peacetime is when you’re reinforcing your company’s strengths and growing. Wartime, on the other hand, is when your business is facing an immediate threat. It might be direct competition, economic changes, market fluctuations, shifts in supply chain, or a similar challenge.
It hasn’t happened often over the course of history, but right now, businesses around the world are combatting wartime together. There won’t be a common solution for every industry, company, or individual to navigate the challenges COVID-19 presents. While much of what was normal — revenue, supply, customers — gets shaken around, there is one thing that uncertainty can’t take away from you and your team: your ability to communicate.
As a leader, you can’t protect your team from future times of uncertainty: they’re coming, and often we can’t fend them off. If you give your team strong communication processes, you’ll be able to navigate whatever comes your way. When you wake up one day to find your business in peacetime again, you’ll all be stronger for it.
Businesses that survive through the ebbs and flows, the wartime and peacetime, focus on the impact they’re making — for employees, customers, and communities. Strong communication processes allow you to do that.
For leaders, you can arm your team with more context, give them ways to work together, and bring clarity to the tasks at hand. You can boost their morale and check in with them. For businesses, strong communication means getting back to customers with more speed, more empathy, and more accuracy — allowing them to achieve their goals.
With strong communication, you enable everyone involved to make an impact. Your team’s mission becomes possible, and your customers' missions come to life too.