Is Your Message Getting Lost in the Sauce?

 During the past several years, the scientific community has been subjected to a campaign to improve communications with the external public. The drumbeat for enhanced engagement emanated from a range of interests. People working in industry, academia, and professional organizations as well as communication scholars and gurus all aggressively urged scientists to refine what they say and how they say it in dealings with global collaborators, citizens, funders, opinion leaders, and legislators— all to better improve relationships and outcomes.

Considerably less attention meanwhile has been paid to the efficacy of scientists’ internal communications. Conversations and exchanges within labs are “relatively neglected compared with external communications in the context of the current science communication push,” said Chris Mooney, a journalist and academic who works in the intersection of science, communication, and politics.

Close proximity can create assumptions that mislead lab managers into a state of communicative complacency—the false sense of security that they are indeed getting the intended message across to staff and superiors. “The first principle of communication,” said consultant and scholar Philip Clampitt, “is ‘message sent’ often does not equal ‘message received.’”

Scientists “believe it’s all taken care of,” said author and consultant Dennis Meredith, “because they pass each other in the hall, confer on a particular experiment occasionally, or have journal clubs and those kinds of meetings. But that’s not the case.”

As a result, levels of staff performance, motivation, and trust are less than optimal. And then there’s the issue of choosing the most appropriate channel for the situation at hand, another potential source of miscommunication gaffes. Under what circumstances are different techniques adverse or desirable? What’s best—one-onone or face-to-face meetings; telephone or email and social media communiques; or group meetings?

Bench scientists typically receive scant formal training in the communication arts, according to a study by John Besley from the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Only one in five communication experts reported conducting such training, and when it did occur, engagement was a secondary focus. Numerous other studies hammer home the paradigm of the communicatively challenged scientist who prefers to be left alone to pursue research. Science and engineering, said Meredith, are “professions that have not valued explanation.”

The starting point for an understanding of the best internal communication practices—and the drivers of motivation, group performance, and trust—is contained in the body of research into psychosocial behaviors, augmented by more recent works from communication specialists who have taken up the cause of science.

A synopsis might begin with the handful of classic theorists who lay the foundations of motivational workplace orthodoxy. Maslow, Hertzberg, Deming, Vroom giants all, and all of whom prescribed (in varying degrees) that management emphasize intrinsic motivators and psychological incentives and reduce reliance on extrinsic payoffs such as cash and perks. A recent McKinsey Quarterly report underscored the value of managerial recognition and attention as a recurring theme in motivational effectiveness surveys. “We’ve known how to motivate workers for a while,” said Roger Mayer from N.C. State’s Poole College of Management. “It depends on how dedicated organizations are to revisiting what works.”

Read more at Lab Manager Magazine