Smart Talk or Smart Action?

/ August 28th, 2012/ Posted in Communication / Comments Off on Smart Talk or Smart Action?

There once was a time when no one could accuse a fitness facility’s management of too much smart talk. But times have changed for many clubs: Owners update their knowledge in seminars. Senior managers have university degrees. Staff needs certification. We want respect for our expertise from the business and medical communities. Sophistication abounds.

This all sounds wonderful until a couple of professors (Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton) shine their light into the dark corners of “The Smart-Talk Trap” (Harvard Business Review, May-June 1999). From their studies of large and small companies, they have found a pattern of smart talk getting in the way of smart action. And they put some of the blame on the way we are educated.

In school, we learn to sound smart in order to get better grades. We are rewarded for being critical of others’ ideas; fingering the flaw in other students’ attempts at smart talk. Having proved ourselves smarter, by the complexity of our thoughts and the brilliance of our vocabulary, we have no further need to take action on our ideas. We made the grade.

The business world tends to perpetuate the process. People who talk more often and longer and with the latest jargon (understood or not) tend to benefit. If they sound smart, they appear more valuable to the company, are more likely to be promoted and have more influence in the group. This may not be all bad but, if they also are consistently critical of others’ ideas, without taking positive action on their own, the company may be “smart talked” into rigor mortis.

Pfeffer and Sutton found that organizations that escape the smart-talk trap share five characteristics:

* Their leaders know and do the work. The top people make time to get to the front line to coach and encourage. Their first-hand knowledge keeps their feet on the ground in a sea of smart talk.

* They favor plain talk and simple concepts. Such companies are “masters of the mundane.” They avoid complex, confusing plans where simple ones are just as good.

* They ask “how,” not just “why.” Rather than just ask why undertake a flawed plan, ask (and, if possible, answer) how the flaws might be fixed.

* They formally track ideas to action. A decision to take action is not only written down, but is made known in the company and is followed all the way to completion.

* They seek experience as a teacher. “Failing early and failing often” with experimental projects is likely to turn up one that can be developed into breakthrough profits. The learning from thoughtful trial and error is more valuable than educational opportunities you can buy outside.

No, the smart talk antidote is not “dumb talk”; it’s turning off the negativity while emphasizing and rewarding problem solving and action.

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