Communication Gap: Pencil-Thin Line or Wide Chasm?

Close the communication gap. canstockphoto9163697

I got an interesting email from a Week-Ender follower and regular reader of my monthly “LBWA” column in PRB . This recreation coordinator from mid-America was asking for advice on how to handle a situation in his department.

I gave him some free advice and I'd like to hear the opinions of other readers to see if you agree, disagree, or have other thoughts. Send them in here.

He said he was being “mildly reprimanded” by his boss for making comments such as “keep it simple,” “stick to the basics,” and “less is more,” when he talked with the boss about operating his programs. The boss interpreted these as negative terms indicating the coordinator was cutting corners and not trying his best, which he insisted wasn’t true.

At the same time, the boss was cutting programming budgets or just telling his team outright, “Don’t spend money on our programs.”

“When I use those terms, I’m trying to be positive about the situation and build a foundation for a great program,” asserts the coordinator.  “I love working here and want to do the best I can. Seems like a communication gap, not an attitude problem.”

Bingo! He hit the bull’s-eye! Indeed, it sounds like a communication gap between leadership and labor--or in team terms--between the coach and players. The thing about a communication gap is that it starts out as a pencil-thin line and widens as communication fails; so the sooner it is addressed, the less chance for a communication chasm to form.

Another thing about a communication gap is that on each side are one or more senders and receivers. Messages are tossed from one side of the gap to the other; in a perfect world, each message is received as intended--in the real world, that often is not the case.

So, first I suggested that if the boss doesn't like the terms, don't use them--or expect negative results if you do. The terms are apparently keeping the boss from understanding what the coordinator is intending. The thing about communication is that how and what you say and what your intentions are don't always get received in the manner you intended.

Once you realize that, in his case via mild reprimands, you might think about changing your approach. Instead of saying "Less is more," say, "I will maximize my use of resources." The word, maximize, is a positive term so while you're saying the same thing you are approaching it from a positive angle.

Another example, instead of saying "stick to the basics" you might say "I'm going to turn the basics on their head and come up with a totally different way of looking at this program." Again, you may still stick to basics but maybe a different set of basics than you were using before.

I pointed out that he and his boss unfortunately are caught up in the same dilemma many parks and rec departments are in--less funding, smaller staffs but still high demand with no drop in expectations--and perhaps increased expectations and maybe even higher use. I postulated that both of them are caught in the middle--his boss has to answer to his boss about budgets and the coordinator has to answer to his clients about programs.

I suggested that this means he may have to re-evaluate how he has been designing programs.

I further proposed that if he doesn’t already do it, he should get hold of program guides from as many different parks and rec departments as he can--most are online now.

I advised he look at programs similar to the ones he’s doing and see how other coordinators are doing it--and borrow ideas from the ones he likes! It's all been done before, it's just that it's been done 100 different ways, so don't reinvent the wheel if somebody already did it for you. What is old and "basic" to someone in California might be new and exciting to someone in Ohio.

I didn’t get into this with the reader, but I also have to wonder what sort of pressures are bearing on his boss.

I don’t presume to know, so I won’t caste dispersions; however, there may be a leadership lesson here as well.

When a subordinate is talking, a leader should be listening and trying to determine the real message in the words.

In this case, the presumably less-experienced subordinate was simply parroting the type of language the leader had been using; don’t spend any money on the programs--and reinforcing that message by cutting program budgets. Generally, a motivated and responsive subordinate who is trying their best will emulate their leadership’s attitudes and approach.

If that leader were to ask for my thoughts, I’d hint that he or she should consider scheduling quarterly brainstorming sessions with all the coordinators; quarterly is good because it coincides with planning cycles for upcoming events and activities that coordinators operate. Work from the next upcoming events out to a year or even 18 months at each quarterly session.

  • Publish an agenda well ahead of the meeting after getting input from each coordinator. Schedule the meeting at a time when all of your coordinators are there; don’t let vacation, events, other duties etc. be a reason for not being there. Stick to the agenda and keep the meeting as short as it needs to be but 2 hours, max.

  • Provide drinks and snacks; food is a good communication tool.

  • Listen to what the coordinators are saying and try to determine where they need help.  After the meeting, follow up with each coordinator as needed with the type of support necessary to make their event successful.

What does this type of meeting do?  It helps keep that communication gap closed to a pencil line rather than a chasm.  Face-to-face interaction with the group will not only lead to better understanding but it will also generate more ideas due to the group dynamics.

After the meeting, it’s a good idea for the leader to publish a summary of the meeting and the major communication points and actions that resulted; this closes that gap and ensures a common understanding.

So in summary, I told this reader that I agreed with him, it appears to be more of a communication gap than an attitude problem. I advised that he could close the gap by using positive language and, since actions speak louder than words, show the boss something new and different that works and they’d be speaking the same language before long.

What do you say?

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email