Communication usually fails except by accident. – Osmo Wiio
In every leadership role I have ever held, my best efforts to communicate have often been misunderstood. If by chance you’re not familiar with Wiio’s Laws of Communication, my experience is all-too-common.
Osmo Wiio (1928-2013) was a Finnish economist, educator, journalist, author, and politician. He is best known for his somewhat facetious “laws” around human communication. Here are four of them:
Law #1: If communication can fail, it will.
Consider a case where a freshman supervisor is explaining to her veteran team the steps to get a project done on time and under budget. The supervisor attempts to convert her knowledge about project management, which is something invisible and intangible in her mind, into words, drawings, or gestures. It is this visible and audible data that gets “transferred” to the team members. The supervisor and team members may assume they speak the same language, so the team members process that received data based on their past experience and construct a mental model of what they think they are expected to do. This process is complex and can quickly become convoluted. It is no wonder that the odds of successful communication are not on her side.
Law #2: If your message can be understood in different ways, it will be understood in the way which does the most harm.
Misprints, misunderstandings, and the listener’s filters have stacked the deck against you. Slight ambiguities will be resolved in just the way you did not mean. After a communication breakdown, nearly every leader complains: “That’s not what I meant!” And even worse – those you lead will often interpret your words in a way you could not have imagined when you formulated your message.
Law #3: The more communication there is, the more difficult it is for communication to succeed.
Conventional wisdom says that the more leaders communicate the better. People will automatically trust more if the leader communicates more, right? Well actually, that’s wrong. Too much information can be worse than too little information. Admiral Bobby Inman, former head of the National Security Agency and Deputy Director of the CIA, was once was asked by a congressional commission what changes he thought would strengthen America’s intelligence system. Inman responded that our world of openly available information calls for fewer spies (and “more slightly batty geniuses”) with language ability, and an understanding of religions and cultures of the countries they’re observing.1 Communicating to increase the volume of information often causes more confusion, not less.
Law #4: The importance of an event is inversely correlated with the square of distance.
Here Wiio is citing a mathematical law of causal relationships. Simply stated, events close to us look much more important to us than remote events. When an airline crashed in Karachi, Pakistan in late May killing ninety-seven people, its coverage by US media outlets was overshadowed by Joe Biden’s comment that anyone considering voting for Trump “ain’t black.” People hear your messages through a subconscious grid that asks: “How does this affect me?” So much of your well-intended communication becomes just white noise.
Wiio humorously summarized his laws by claiming that “human communication usually fails except by accident.” Despite his tongue-in-cheek claim, Wiio’s laws slightly console me when I fail. They also help me to admit the nuggets of truth in each one, and to build upon them to try to communicate more effectively.
1 Gladwell, Malcolm. What the Dog Saw (p. 171). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.