Case 4: Jeanne Lewis and Effective Communication
Communication is the process of transmittal of information, a message, from a sender to a receiver via a channel. The receiver of the message then decodes the information and gives the sender feedback. Just sending the message is not sufficient. For communication to be understood, the message must be decoded. Furthermore, in managerial communication, the message not only must be sent, received and decoded but it must “lead to the response you desire from your audience.”(Munter, n.d., p. 3) It is the manager’s responsibility to effectively relay the intended message to the appropriate receivers and, in the process, inspire, guide and lead the followers to perform as expected.(Kreitner & Kinicki, 2004) The process is not simple and requires coordination of multiple variables, many beyond the control of the sender. However, to optimize the transmittal and reception of the message, the sender must recognize and eliminate potential barriers. Barriers may stem from a personal perspective such as poor listening skills, lack of trust of the speaker, stereotypes or predetermined prejudices.
Physical barriers may be noise, computer/telephone problems, or a distance between the sender and the intended receiver. Semantic barriers are related to encoding and decoding problems. These problems are related to the specific words or wording used to create the message. Was the message clear and concise? Was it full of colloquialisms, or too technical, or too complex for the recipient? (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2004) In the case study of Jeanne Lewis at Staples, Inc., Staples, Inc., as an organization, recognized that communication was paramount to successful performance. In 1986, the Chairman and CEO of Staples, Tom Sternberg challenged his employees to become more focused on four areas of importance: customers, employees, communication and execution. A Point Team was charged with ensuring communication and alignment on policy issues. Sternberg recognized that effective communication was essential to the foundation of his company’s culture if they were to successfully reach his $10 billion objective by the year 2000. (Suesse, 2000) Though Sternberg recognized the importance of communication, upon review of the case study, various barriers to effective communication were noted within the Staples corporation.
In 1997, the current executive vice president, Todd Krasnow, announced he was resigning at the end 1997. Jeannie Lewis was tapped as Krasnow’s successor. At the same time, the anticipated Staples and Office Depot merger fell apart. During the ten month merger negotiations between Staples, Inc. and Office Depot, Jeanne Lewis noted the merger had been a distraction for the corporate leadership. Jeanne felt that during the merger talks, operating issues were not suitably addressed. When the merger fell apart, Jeanne felt the corporation was lacking a clear direction. The corporation was floundering and need guidance. (Suesse, 2000) This unclear message to the employees created an uneasy and apprehensive environment for the staffers. (Suesse, 2000) This was a tumultuous time for the Staples company. As Jeannie moved from merchandising to operations to marketing, she was considered an outsider within each department. While Jeanne Lewis was noted as having a charming and motivating personality, she was not well trusted among her staff. Additionally, the apprehensive air that was present throughout Staples made trust a significant issue at all levels. Furthermore, Jeanne’s personal style of challenging her staff and inspiring dialogue and debate was not always well received. When Jeanne moved to the marketing department from merchandising, she realized that her confrontational style was too gruff for the marketing staffers. Jeanne had to earn the trust of her staff and shift her communication style to meet the needs of her staffers to become an effective communicator.
(Suesse, 2000) The mistrust of Jeanne, the corporate insecurity along with Jeanne’s inappropriate communication style, are illustrations of personal barriers that Jeanne would need to overcome to effectively communicate with her staffers. Physical barriers are also evident in the case study. The rapid and expansive growth of Staples into a world-wide corporation with over 30,000 employees presented a physical barrier as message senders and their intended recipients were not always in the same location. Jeanne had her own physical barrier when she was maintaining offices on two different floors. Physical barriers make communication difficult to transmit due to the potential time delay in transmission of messages, potential channel problems (either with telephone or computer problems) and possible miscommunication related to time zone differences. Jeanne Lewis overcame these barriers and was an effective communicator who exemplified the Staples, Inc. mission by focusing on customers, employees, communication and execution. To optimize her intrapersonal communication, Jeanne Lewis altered her communication styles and communication channels as necessary. When she realized her “rough and tumble” style was not effective in her new position in the marketing department, she altered her confrontational style. In the marketing department, she started bimonthly staff meetings with her direct reports; however, she found this was not productive. She found that 1:1 meetings were more efficient than the group meeting. Again, Jeanne flexed her communication channel from group meetings to 1:1 status meetings. Upon reviewing the case study, Jeanne Lewis may have improved her intrapersonal communication skills further by modifying her communication strategy, her audience strategy and her message strategy. By modifying these strategies, she would have been able to tailor her messages to improve the recipient’s decoding, comprehension, responses and subsequent actions.
Analysis of her communicator strategies would require identification of her message objective(s), her delivery style and her creditability. As already discussed, Jeanne’s style and creditability were two of her problem areas. To build a communicator strategy, the foundation is the objective – what is to be accomplished by sending the message? After determining the objective, the style should be customized to the objective. Style development is founded on the objective – is the message to instruct or consult? Persuade or inspire? The message, its objective and the communicator’s style, is further influenced by the audience’s perception of the sender of the message. The sender’s credibility is based on who the sender is, what the sender represents and the sender’s previous interactions with the receiver. (Munter, n.d.) The intended audience, or receiver, must be considered when developing a strategy for communication. What do they know? How do they feel? Are they already for or against the message? How do they absorb information? What do they need to know? (Munter, n.d.) Last, but not least, the message strategy must be organized to suit the objective. What should be emphasized? How should the message be organized? Should it be delivered via a direct approach or an indirect approach? (Munter, n.d.) Notice each of these strategies is codependent and work in conjunction with the other. Back to the case study, while Jeanne was an effective communicator, perhaps Jeanne could have employed a more effective communication strategy when starting her position with the marketing department. Right off the bat, Jeanne was straddling two positions between the marketing and merchandising departments. She had two offices on two separate floors. At this time, the merger was still in the plans. Todd Krasnow was leaving in six months and another long termed, respected colleague, Bridgett Coles, also announced she was leaving. “Everyone felt a lot of loyalty to the “old regime.”
There was a lot of fear and trepidation around Bridget and Todd leaving within six months of each other, the fear and insecurity that comes with change.”(Suesse, 2000, p. 7) To Jeanne’s credit, she appropriately employed an open door policy for her staff and “made an effort to be approachable” (Suesse, 2000, p. 7) Jeannie also recognized the lack of productivity in her group meetings and changed them to 1:1 status meetings. Further, Jeannie revamped her communication style to meet the needs of her new marketing staff. However, Jeanne’s time was a restricted commodity. It was in May of 1997, after eight months of wearing two hats, Jeanne insisted she be replaced in her merchandising position. To facilitate effective communication perhaps Jeanne should have considered requesting a replacement sooner. Although this isn’t necessarily a communication technique, Jeanne’s restricted availability hampered effective communication within both of her departments. To this point, Jeanne had encountered physical (offices on different floors) and personal (communication style and lack of trust). To counter the noted insecurity within the marketing department and to further improve communication, Jeanne may have considered keeping staff informed of changes by way of a newsletter or an intradepartmental website .
Utilizing the strategies outlined above, the objective would have been to increase communication and to reduce staffers’ anxiety. By creating the newsletter or authoring the components of the website, she would have established credibility beyond that of just her title and as an expert on the topics. By assessing her audience, she would have realize that her staffers would not need to know day by day detail as to what was in process, but a general overview of situations would have address their questions, increased their sense of security and minimized the office water-cooler gossip. The newsletter and/or website would have further improved the team camaraderie and communication, without requiring Jeanne to be physically available. The staffers would be able understand her position in her absence. For the message strategy, the structure of the website or newsletter could have been semi-casual, a direct approach with organizational information as to the corporation’s executive plan, forecasts and expectations.
Again, this is no-nonsense approach would inform the employees of the corporation goals and expectations, improve the team’s sense of security, improve team cohesiveness, reduce the gossip chain and offers credibility to Jeanne’s position. Effective communication is critical for an individual’s and a corporation’s success. To effectively lead, a manager must not only send the message, but the message must be received, accurately decoded and then, correctly acted upon. It is imperative that the intended message is received as the sender expected. While various barriers may interfere with the message, it is in the manager’s best interest to reduce potential barriers as much as possible. By developing a communication strategy, the sender will reduce barriers, improve decoding and ensure reception of his intended message.
Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2004). Organizational behavior (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin. Munter, M. (n.d.). Communication Strategy. In Guide to managerial communication (pp. 3-31). Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458: Prentice Hall. Suesse, J. M. (2000). Jeanne Lewis at Staples, Inc. (Case Study Harvard Business School). Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.