One of the most important parts of leadership is communication. And no matter how much you try to communicate, it seems there is always room for improvement. But why is it that so many new ideas flame out before they really get established?
In Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World, he writes about the exposure effect. People tend to gravitate to ideas or methods that are more familiar, while they tend to avoid things that are less familiar.
The mere exposure effect has been replicated many times—the more familiar a face, letter, number, sound, flavor, brand, or Chinese character becomes, the more we like it. It’s true across different cultures and species; even baby chickens prefer the familiar. My favorite test was when people looked at photographs of themselves and their friends that were either regular or inverted, as if seen in a mirror. We prefer the regular photos of our friends, because that’s how we’re used to seeing them, but we like the inverted photos of ourselves, because that’s how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror. “Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt,” says serial entrepreneur Howard Tullman. “It breeds comfort.”
The exposure effect might explain why teachers tend to teach as they were taught. And why parents can get a little anxious when their child’s schooling deviates from what they experienced as a student. It might also explain why new ideas may not gain traction right away, even if they are great ideas that might be game-changers for student learning. People need time to warm-up to a new idea, and the research seems to prove it.
So if you want to move your vision forward, you have to help people become more comfortable with the vision. You have to overcommunicate the vision. But usually the opposite happens. Leaders often communicate far too little and too infrequently. Grant writes that leaders tend to assume everyone else is familiar with their ideas. They spend hours thinking about the vision from just about every angle. It seems easy to the person most familiar with it.
You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time.
It’s easy to forget the perspective of the audience. But perhaps they aren’t on Twitter all the time discussing the topic. They might not be constantly engaged in conversations with other forward-thinking educators. They may not have the opportunity to go to as many conferences or attend as many workshops. To them, the message seems foreign and difficult to understand. It’s hard to take the message and fit it with their current thoughts and ideas. You possess a clarity they do not.
As I read this part of the book, I was reflecting on my own communication as a leader. I can actually think of lots of ways I’ve failed to consistently communicate our vision. It’s easy to add just one more thing and make our goals too complex. Then the communication is just a muddled mess of one new idea after another. There isn’t opportunity for people to really adopt an idea, get behind it, and see how it works in their world. The next new thing is just around the corner.
Just last year, our district admin team was reading Finding Your Leadership Focus by Doug Reeves. But in spite of the study of priorities, I don’t think we eliminated a single initiative. We just continued spinning plates. You work on spinning a few over here, and then give attention to some others before they come crashing down. Because nearly everything seems to be a priority, in reality it means that nothing is a priority. We are killing any chance at a transforming vision by initiative fatigue.
But I actually thought of one example that was a success. So let’s focus on the positive, right?
In the years leading up to our 1:1 initiative, we didn’t have the budget to make it happen. We just didn’t have the money. That provided plenty of time for staff to warm-up to the idea. They heard me tell stories of other schools who were going 1:1. I constantly was dreaming about how awesome it would be when all of our students had consistent access. I talked about it a lot. And other people talked about it too. I think all those years helped most everyone embrace the idea. Our budget woes may have been a blessing in disguise. The delay was probably helpful in setting the stage for the success of 1:1 at BHS.
In the fall of 2015, when 1:1 became a reality, we totally hit the ground running. I’m not saying it was perfect. But the buy-in was at a high level, and our digital transformation was off to a great start. For several years, our team was getting ready for this future reality. There was plenty of time to become familiar with the concept of 1:1, why it was important, and how it could be helpful in each classroom. We communicated the ‘why’ of 1:1 over and over again.
As Grant suggested, “If we want people to accept our original ideas, we need to speak up about them, and then rinse and repeat.”
So as your leadership team plans to move your vision forward, consider the importance of the exposure effect. Really listen to the feedback from your team to understand how the ideas are being received. And make sure you don’t underestimate how much exposure your audience needs to understand your vision and embrace it.
When Harvard professor John Kotter studied change agents years ago, he found that they typically undercommunicated their visions by a factor of ten. On average, they spoke about the direction of change ten times less often than their stakeholders needed to hear it. In one three-month period, employees might be exposed to 2.3 million words and numbers. On average during that period, the vision for change was expressed in only 13,400 words and numbers: a 30-minute speech, an hour-long meeting, a briefing, and a memo. Since more than 99 percent of the communication that employees encounter during those three months does not concern the vision, how can they be expected to understand it, let along internalize it? The change agents don’t realize this, because they’re up to their ears in information about their vision.
So as a result of Grant’s ideas, I’m considering ways I can be more consistent, focused, and systematic in my communication. I need to refine the message and then use the “slow-drip method” to keep it in front our staff. And I want to listen to feedback and revise the vision as needed. Ultimately, the vision should belong to the team. It’s really about giving an idea time to “percolate” so there is opportunity to process, evaluate, and ultimately act upon it.
An unfamiliar idea requires more effort to understand. The more we see, hear, and touch it, the more comfortable we become with it, and the less threatening it is.
Question: What are ways you are communicating a focused message to your team? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.
Read More One Simple Strategy to Overcome Resistance to Your Vision