Harper Business 1993 ISBN 0 88730 615 2 Extracts... begin chapter 38 page 481

Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

By Peter F. Drucker



Managerial Communications

More Talk; and Less Communication--
What We Have Learned--
The Fundamentals-- Communication Is Perception--
Communication Is Expectation--
Communication Makes Demands--
Communication and Information Are Different--
Information Presupposes Communication--
Why Downward Communications Cannot Work--
The Limitations of "Listening"--
The Demands of the Information Explosion--
What Can Managers Do?--
Management by Objectives, Performance Appraisal and Management Letter as Communications Tools--
Communications, the Mode of Organization

We have more attempts at communications today, that is, more attempts to talk to others, and a surfeit of communications media, unimaginable to the men who, around the time of World War I, started to work on the problems of communicating in organizations. Communications in manage- ment has become a central concern to students and practitioners in all institutions--business, the military, public administration, hospital, univer- sity, and research. In no other area have intelligent men and women worked harder or with greater dedication than psychologists, human relations ex- perts, managers, and management students have worked on improving communications in our major institutions.

Yet communications has proven as elusive as the Unicorn. The noise level has gone up so fast that no one can really listen any more to all that babble about communications. But there is clearly less and less communicating. The communications gap within institutions and between groups in society has been widening steadily -- to the point where it threatens to become an unbridgeable gulf of total misunderstanding.


In the meantime, there is an information explosion. Every professional and every executive -- in fact, everyone except the deaf-mute -- suddenly has access to data in inexhaustible abundance. All of us feel--and overeat -- very much like the little boy who has been left alone in the candy store. But what has to be done to make this cornucopia of data redound to information, let alone to knowledge? We get a great many answers. But the one thing clear so far is that no one really has an answer. Despite information theory and data processing, no one yet has actually seen, let alone used, an "information system," or a "data base." The one thing we do know, though, is that the abundance of information changes the communications problem and makes it both more urgent and even less tractable.

There is a tendency today to give up on communications. In psychology, for instance, the fashion today is the T-group with its sensitivity training. The avowed aim is not communications, but self-awareness. T-groups focus on the "I" and not on the "Thou." Ten or twenty years ago the rhetoric stressed "empathy"; now it stresses "doing one's thing." However needed self-knowledge may be, communication is needed at least as much (if indeed self-knowledge is possible without action on others, that is, without communications).

Despite the sorry state of communications in theory and practice, we have learned a good deal about information and communications. Most of it, though, has not come out of the work on communications to which we have devoted so much time and energy. It has been the by-product of work in a large number of seemingly unrelated fields, from learning theory to genetics and electronic engineering. We equally have a lot of experience -- though mostly of failure -- in a good many practical situations in all kinds of institutions. We may indeed never understand "communications." But "communications in organizations" -- call it managerial communications -- we do know something about by now.

We are, to be sure, still far away from mastery of communications, even in organizations. What knowledge we have about communications is scattered and, as a rule, not accessible, let alone in applicable form. But at least we increasingly know what does not work, and, sometimes, why it does not work. Indeed we can say bluntly that most of today's brave attempts at communication in organizations -- whether business, labor unions, government agencies, or universities -- is based on assumptions that have been proven to be invalid -- and that, therefore, these efforts cannot have results. And perhaps we can even anticipate what might work.

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What We Have Learned

We have learned, mostly through doing the wrong things, four funda- mentals of communications.

  1. Communication is perception.

  2. Communication is expectation.

  3. Communication makes demands.

  4. Communication and information are different and indeed largely opposite-- yet interdependent.

1. Communication is perception.

An old riddle posed by the mystics of many religions--the Zen Buddhists, the Sufis of Islam, and the Rabbis of the Talmud--asks: "Is there a sound in the forest if a tree crashes down and no one is around to hear it?" We now know that the right answer to this is no. There are sound waves. But there is no sound unless someone perceives it. Sound is created by perception. Sound is communication.

This may seem trite; after all, the mystics of old already knew this, for they too always answered that there is no sound unless someone can hear it. Yet the implications of this rather trite statement are great indeed.

First, it means that it is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise. The communicator speaks or writes or sings -- but he does not communicate. Indeed, he cannot communicate. He can only make it possible, or impossible, for a recipient -- or rather, "percipient" -- to perceive.

Perception, we know, is not logic. It is experience. This means, in the first place, that one always perceives a configuration. One cannot perceive single specifics. They are always part of a total picture. The "silent language," (1) that is, the gestures, the tone of voice, the environment altogether, not to mention the cultural and social referents, cannot be dissociated from the spoken language. In fact, without them the spoken word has no meaning and cannot communicate.

It is not only that the same words, e.g., "I enjoyed meeting you," will be heard as having a wide variety of meanings. Whether they are heard as warmth or as icy cold, as endearment or as rejection depends on their setting in the "silent language," such as the tone of voice or the occasion. More important is that by itself, that is, without being part of the total configuration of occasion, value, "silent language," and so on, the phrase has no


  1. As Eoward T. Hall called it in the title of his pioneering work (Doubleday, 1959).


meaning at all. By itself it cannot make possible communication. It cannot be understood. Indeed it cannot be heard. To paraphrase an old proverb of the human-relations school: "One cannot communicate a word; the whole man always comes with it."

But we know about perception also that one can perceive only what one is capable of perceiving. Just as the human ear does not hear sounds above a certain pitch, so does human perception altogether not perceive what is beyond its range of perception. It may, of course, hear physically, or see visually, but it cannot accept it. It cannot become communication.

This is a fancy way of stating something the teachers of rhetoric have known for a very long time -- though the practitioners of communications tend to forget it again and again.

In Plato's Phaedo which, among other things, is also the earliest extant treatise on rhetoric, Socrates points out that one has to talk to people in terms of their own experience, that is, that one has to use carpenters' metaphors when talking to carpenters, and so on. One can communicate only in the recipient's language or in his terms. And the terms have to be experience-based. It, therefore, does very little good to try to explain terms to people. They will not be able to receive them if they are not terms of their own experience. They simply exceed their perception capacity.

The connection between experience, perception, and concept formation -- that is, cognition -- is, we now know, infinitely subtler and richer than any earlier philosopher imagined. But one fact is proven and comes out strongly in the most disparate work, e.g., that of Piaget (in Switzerland), that of B. F. Skinner, and that of Jerome Bruner (both at Harvard). Percept and concept in the learner, whether child or adult, are not separate. We cannot perceive unless we also conceive. But we also cannot form concepts unless we can perceive. To communicate a concept is impossible unless the recipient can perceive it, that is, unless it is within his perception.

There is a very old saying among writers: "Difficulties with a sentence mean confused thinking. It is not the sentence that needs straightening out, it is the thought behind it." In writing we attempt, first, to communicate with ourselves. An "unclear sentence" is one that exceeds our own capacity for perception. Working on the sentence, that is, working on what is normally called communications, cannot solve the problem. We have to work on our own concepts first to be able to understand what we are trying to say -- and only then can we write the sentence.

In communicating, whatever the medium, the first question has to be "Is this communication within the recipient's range of perception? Can he receive it?"

The "range of perception" is, of course, physiological and largely (though not entirely) set by physical limitations of man's animal body. When we

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speak of communication, however, the most important limitations on perception are usually cultural and emotional rather than physical.

That fanatics are not being convinced by rational arguments, we have known for thousands of years. Now we are beginning to understand that it is not "argument" that is lacking. Fanatics do not have the ability to perceive a communication which goes beyond their range of emotions. First their emotions would have to be altered. In other words, no one is really "in touch with reality," if by that we mean that he has complete openness to evidence. The distinction between "sanity" and "paranoia" does not lie in the ability to perceive, but in the ability to learn, that is, in the ability to change one's emotions on the basis of experience.

That perception is conditioned by what we are capable of perceiving was realized forty years ago by the most quoted but probably least heeded of all students of organization, Mary Parker Follett (e.g., especially in her collected essays, Dynamic Administration, Harper's, 1941. (1) Follett taught that a disagreement or a conflict is likely not to be about the answers, or indeed about anything ostensible. It is, in most cases, the result of incongruity in perceptions. What A sees so vividly, B does not see at all. And, therefore, what A argues, has no pertinence to B's concerns, and vice versa. Both, Follett argued, are likely to see reality. But each is likely to see a different aspect of it. The world, and not only the material world, is multi- dimensional. Yet one can see only one dimension at a time.

One rarely realizes that there could be other dimensions, and that something that is so obvious to us and so clearly validated by our emotional experience has other dimensions, a "back" and "sides," which are entirely different and which, therefore, lead to entirely different perceptions. The story I mentioned earlier about the blind men and the elephant in which each one, encountering this strange beast, feels one of the elephant's parts, his leg, his trunk, his hide, and reports an entirely different conclusion, and holds to it tenaciously, is simply a metaphor of the human condition. There is no possibility of communication until this is understood and until he who has felt the hide of the elephant goes over to him who has felt the leg and feels the leg himself. There is no possibility of communications, in other words, unless we first know what the recipient, the true communicator, can see and why.

2. Communication is expectation.

We perceive, as a rule, what we expect to perceive. We see largely what we expect to see, and we hear largely what we expect to hear. That the unexpected may be resented is not the important thing--though most of the work on communications in business and government thinks it is. What is truly important is that the unexpected is usually not received at all. It is not seen or heard, but ignored. Or it is misunderstood, that is, mis-seen or mis-heard as the expected.


On this we now have a century or more of experimentation. The results are unambiguous. The human mind attempts to fit impressions and stimuli into a frame of expectations. It resists vigorously any attempts to make it "change its mind," that is, to perceive what it does not expect to perceive or not to perceive what it expects to perceive. It is, of course, possible to alert the human mind to the fact that what it perceives is contrary to its expectations. But this first requires that we understand what it expects to perceive. It then requires that there be an unmistakable signal--"this is different," that is, a shock which breaks continuity. A gradual change in which the mind is supposedly led by small, incremental steps to realize that what is perceived is not what it expects to perceive will not work. It will rather reinforce the expectations and will make it even more certain that what will be perceived is what the recipient expects to perceive.

Before we can communicate, we must, therefore, know what the recipient expects to see and hear. Only then can we know whether communication can utilize his expectations -- and what they are -- or whether there is need for the "shock of alienation," for an "awakening" that breaks through the recipient's expectations and forces him to realize that the unexpected is happening.

3. Communication makes demands.

Many years ago psychologists stumbled on a strange phenomenon in their studies of memory, a phenomenon that, at first, upset all their hypotheses. In order to test memory, the psychologists compiled a list of words to be shown to their experimental subjects for varying times as a test of their retention capacity. As control, a list of nonsense words, mere jumbles of letters, was devised. Much to the surprise of these early experimenters almost a century ago or so, their subjects (mostly students, of course) showed totally uneven memory retention of individual words. More surprising, they showed amazingly high retention of the nonsense words. The explanation of the first phenomenon is fairly obvious. Words are not mere information. They do carry emotional charges. And, therefore words with unpleasant or threatening associations tend to be suppressed, words with pleasant associations retained. In fact, this selective retention by emotional association has since been used to construct tests for emotional disorders and for personality profiles.

The relatively high retention rate of nonsense words was a greater puzzle. It was expected that no one would really remember words that had no meaning at all. But it has become clear over the years that the memory for these words, though limited, exists precisely because these words have no meaning. For this reason, they make no demand. They are truly neutral. With respect to them, memory could be said to be truly "mechanical," showing neither emotional preference nor emotional rejection.

A similar phenomenon, known to every newspaper editor, is the amazingly high readership and retention of the "fillers," the little three- or

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five-line bits of irrelevant incidental information that are used to "balance" a page. Why should anybody want to read, let alone remember, that it first became fashionable to wear different-colored hose on each leg at the court of some long-forgotten duke? Or, when and where baking powder was first used? Yet there is no doubt that these little tidbits of irrelevancy are read and, above all, that they are remembered, far better than almost anything else in the daily paper except the screaming headlines of the catastrophes. The answer is that the fillers make no demands. It is their total irrelevancy that accounts for their being remembered.

Communication is always "propaganda." The emitter always wants "to get something across." Propaganda, we now know, is both a great deal more powerful than the rationalists with their belief in "open discussion" believe, and a great deal less powerful than the myth-makers of propaganda, e.g., Dr. Goebbels in the Nazi regime, believed and wanted us to believe. Indeed the danger of total propaganda is not that the propaganda will be believed. The danger is that nothing will be believed and that every communication becomes suspect. In the end, no communication is being received. Everything anyone says is considered a demand and is resisted, resented, and in effect not heard at all. The end results of total propaganda are not fanatics, but cynics--but this, of course, may be even greater and more dangerous corruption.

Communication, in other words, always makes demands. It always demands that the recipient become somebody, do something, believe something. It always appeals to motivation. If, in other words, communication fits in with the aspirations, the values, the purposes of the recipient, it is powerful. If it goes against his aspirations, his values, his motivations, it is likely not to be received at all or, at best, to be.resisted. Of course, at its most powerful, communication brings about "conversion," that is, a change of personality, of values, beliefs, aspirations. But this is the rare, existential event, and one against which the basic psychological forces of every human being are strongly organized. Even the Lord, the Bible reports, first had to strike Saul blind before he could raise him up as Paul. Communications aiming at conversion demand surrender. By and large, therefore, there is no communication unless the message can key in to the recipient's own values, at least to some degree.

4. Communication and information are different and indeed largely opposite-- yet interdependent. Where communication is perception, information is logic. As such, information is purely formal and has no meaning. It is impersonal rather than interpersonal. The more it can be freed of the human component, that is, of such things as emotions and values, expectations and perceptions, the more valid and reliable does it become. Indeed it becomes increasingly informative.

All through history, the problem has been how to glean a little information


out of communications, that is, out of relationships between people,based on perception. All through history, the problem has been to isolate the information content from an abundance of perception. Now, all of a sudden, we have the capacity to provide information -- both because of the conceptual work of the logicians (especially the symbolic logic of Russell and Whitehead, which appeared in 1910), and because of the technical work on data processing and data storage, that is, especially because of the computer and its tremendous capacity to store, manipulate, and transmit data. Now, in other words, we have the opposite problem from the one mankind has always been struggling with. Now we have the problem of handling information per se, devoid of any communication content.

The requirements for effective information are the opposite of those for effective communication. Information is, for instance, always specific. We perceive a configuration in communications; but we convey specific individual data in the information process. Indeed, information is, above all, a principle of economy. The fewer data needed, the better the information. And an overload of information, that is, anything much beyond what is truly needed, leads to information blackout. It does not enrich, but impoverishes.

At the same time, information presupposes communication. Information is always encoded. To be received, let alone to be used, the code must be known and understood by the recipient. This requires prior agreement, that is, some communication. At the very least, the recipient has to know what the data pertain to. Are the figures on a piece of computer tape the height of mountaintops or the cash balances of Federal Reserve member banks? In either case, the recipient would have to know what mountains are or what banks are to get any information out of the data.

The prototype information system may well have been the peculiar language known as Armee Deutsch (Army German) which served as language of command in the Imperial Austrian Army prior to 1918. A polyglot army in which officers, noncommissioned officers, and men often had no language in common, it functioned remarkably well with fewer than two hundred specific words--"fire," for instance, or "at ease," each of which had only one totally unambiguous meaning. The meaning was always an action. And the words were learned in and through actions, i.e., in what behaviorists now call "operant conditioning." The tensions in the Austrian Army after many decades of nationalist turmoil were very great indeed. Social intercourse between members of different nationalities serving in the same unit became increasingly difficult, if not impossible. But to the very end, the information system functioned. It was completely formal; completely rigid; completely logical in that each word had only one possible meaning; and

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it rested on completely pre-established communication regarding the specific response to a certain set of sound waves. This example, however, shows also that the effectiveness of an information system depends on the willingness and ability to think through carefully what information is needed by whom for what purposes, and then on the systematic creation of communication among the various parties to the system as to the meaning of each specific input and output. The effectiveness, in other words, depends on the pre-establishment of communication.

Communication communicates the more levels of meaning it has and the less it lends itself to quantification.

Medieval esthetics held that a work of art communicates on a number of levels, at least three if not four: the literal; the metaphorical; the allegorical; and the symbolic. The work of art that most consciously converted this theory into artistic practice was Dante's Divina Commedia. If by "information" we mean something that can be quantified, then the Divina Commedia is without any information content whatever. But it is precisely the ambiguity, the multiplicity of levels on which this book can be read, from being a fairy tale to being a grand synthesis of metaphysics, that makes it the overpowering work of art it is and the immediate communication which it has been to generations of readers.

Communications, in other words, may not be dependent on information. Indeed the most perfect communications may be purely "shared experiences," without any logic whatever. Perception has primacy rather than information.

This summary of what we have learned is gross oversimplification. It glosses over some of the most hotly contested issues in psychology and perception. Indeed it may well brush aside most of the issues which the students of learning and of perception, would consider central and important.

But the aim has not been to survey these big areas. My concern here is not with learning or with perception. It is with communications, and in particular, with communications in the large organization, be it business enterprise, government agency, university, or armed service.

This summary might also be criticized for being trite, if not obvious. No one, it might be said, could possibly be surprised at its statements. They say what "everybody knows." But whether this be so or not, it is not what "everybody does." On the contrary, the logical implication for communications in organizations of these apparently simple and obvious statements is at odds with current practice and indeed denies validity to the honest and serious efforts we have been making to communicate for many decades now.


Why Downward Communications Cannot Work

What, then, can our knowledge and our experience teach us about communications in organizations, about the reasons for our failures, and about the prerequisites for success in the future?

For centuries we have attempted communication "downward." This, however, cannot work, no matter how hard and how intelligently we try. It cannot work, first, because it focuses on what we want to say. It assumes, in other words, that the utterer communicates. But we know that all he does is utter. Communication is the act of the recipient. What we have been trying to do is to work on the emitter, specifically on the manager, the administrator, the commander, to make him capable of being a better communicator. But all one can communicate downward are commands, that is, prearranged signals. One cannot communicate downward anything connected with understanding, let alone with motivation. This requires communication upward, from those who perceive to those who want to reach their perception.

This does not mean that managers should stop working on clarity in what they say or write. Far from it. But it does mean that how we say something comes only after we have learned what to say. And this cannot be found out by "talking to," no matter how well it is being done. "Letters to the Employees," no matter how well done, will be a waste unless the writer knows what employees can perceive, expect to perceive, and want to do. They are a waste unless they are based on the recipient's rather than the emitter's perception.

But "listening" does not work either.

The Human Relations School of Elton Mayo, forty years ago, recognized the failure of the traditional approach to communications. Its answer (1) was to enjoin listening. Instead of starting out with what "we," that is, the executive, want to "get across," the executive should start out by finding out what subordinates want to know, are interested in, are, in other words, receptive to. To this day, the human relations prescription, though rarely practiced, remains the classic formula.

Of course, listening is a prerequisite to communication. But it is not adequate, and it cannot, by itself, work. Listening assumes that the superior will understand what he is being told. It assumes, in other words, that the


  1. Especially as developed in Mayo's t vo famous books, The Human Problems of an industrial Civilization (Harvard Business School, 1933) and The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization (Harvard 8usiness School, 1945).

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subordinates can communicate. It is hard to see, however, why the subordinate should be able to do what his superior cannot do. In fact, there is no reason for assuming he can. There is no reason, in other words, to believe that listening results any less in misunderstanding and miscommunications than does talking. In addition, the theory of listening does not take into account that communications is demands. It does not bring out the subordinate's preferences and desires, his values and aspirations. It may explain the reasons for misunderstanding. But it does not lay down a basis for understanding.

This is not to say that listening is wrong, any more than the futility of downward communications furnishes any argument against attempts to write well, to say things clearly and simply, and to speak the language of those whom one addresses rather than one's own jargon. Indeed, the reali- zation that communications have to be upward -- or rather that they have to start with the recipient rather than the emitter, which underlies the concept of listening -- is absolutely sound and vital. But listening is only the starting point.

More and better information does not solve the communications problem, does not bridge the communications gap. On the contrary, the more information, the greater is the need for functioning and effective communication. The more information, in other words, the greater is the communications gap likely to be. The information explosion demands functioning communications.

The more impersonal and formal the information process in the first place, the more will it depend on prior agreement on meaning and application, that is, on communications. In the second place, the more effective the information process, the more impersonal and formal will it become; the more will it separate human beings and thereby require separate, but also much greater, efforts, to re-establish the human relationship, the relation- ship of communication. It may be said that the effectiveness of the information process will depend increasingly on our ability to communicate, and that, in the absence of effective communication -- that is, in the present situation -- the information revolution cannot really produce information. All it can produce is data.

The information explosion is the most compelling reason to go to work on communications. Indeed, the frightening communications gap all around us--between management and workers; between business and government; between faculty and students, and between both of them and university administration; between producers and consumers, and so on -- may well reflect in some measure the tremendous increase in information without a commensurate increase in communications.


What Can Managers Do?

Can we then say anything constructive about communication? Can we do anything? We can say that communication has to start from the intended recipient of communications rather than from the emitter. In terms of traditional organization we have to start upward. Downward communications cannot work and do not work. They come after upward communications have successfully been established. They are reaction rather than action; response rather than initiative.

But we can also say that it is not enough to listen. The upward communications must be focused on something that both recipient and emitter can perceive, focused on something that is common to both of them. They must be focused on what already motivates the intended recipient. They must, from the beginning, be informed by his values, beliefs, and aspirations.

Management by objectives is thus a prerequisite for functioning communication. It requires the subordinate to think through and present to the superior his own conclusions as to what major contribution to the organization -- or to the unit within the organization -- he should be expected to perform and should be held accountable for.

What the subordinate comes up with is rarely what the superior expects. Indeed, the first aim of the exercise is precisely to bring out the divergence in perception between superior and subordinate. But the perception is focused, and focused on something that is real to both parties. To realize that they see the same reality differently is in itself already communication.

Management by objectives gives to the intended recipient of communication -- in this case the subordinate -- access to experience that enables him to understand. He is given access to the reality of decision-making, the problems of priorities, the choice between what one likes to do and what the situation demands, and above all, the responsibility for a decision. He may not see the situation the same way the superior does -- in fact, he rarely will or even should. But he may gain an understanding of the complexity of the superior's situation and of the fact that the complexity is not of the superior's making, but is inherent in the situation itself.

And these communications, even if they end in a "no" to the subordinate's conclusions, are firmly focused on the aspirations, values, and motivation of the intended recipient. In fact, they start out with the question "What would you want to do?" They may then end up with the command "This is what I tell you to do." But at least they force the superior to realize that he is overriding the desires of the subordinate. It forces him to explain, if not to try to persuade. At least he knows that he has a problem -- and so does the subordinate.

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A performance appraisal based on what a man can do and has done well; or a discussion on a man's development direction, are similarly foundations for communications. They start out with the subordinate's concerns, ex- press his perception, and focus his expectations. They make communica- tions his tool rather than a demand on him.

These are only examples, and rather insignificant ones at that. But perhaps they illustrate the main conclusion to which our experience with communications -- largely an experience of failure -- and all the work on learning, memory, perception, and motivation point: communication requires shared experience.

There can be no communication if it is conceived as going from the "I" to the "Thou." Communication works only from one member of "us" to another. Communication in organization -- and this may be the true lesson of our communication failure and the true measure of our communication need -- is not a means of organization. It is the mode of organization.