Language barriers: The CFO is bombing
By David Jarrard, for HealthLeaders.com, Dec. 21, 2001
She stands before a collection of nurses and others assembled for the hospital's employee open forum hosted by the admin team every quarter. She is trying valiantly to justify why the hospital is expanding its outpatient diagnostic unit while holding the line on nursing overtime pay.
"A review of our higher margin programs and the growth patterns in our service area make it clear we must invest here today," she says. "Just look at the numbers."
It's not selling and she knows it.
Out loud, a few nurses ask things like: "What does this mean for my floor?" "When will it be complete?" "How can I apply to work there?"
But to themselves (and around the nurse's stations afterwards) they're saying: "If they can afford this, they can afford better pay." "Who's in charge here, people or money?" "They used to care about us and about patients. It's all about the numbers now."
Everyone leaves feeling frustrated.
Our CFO is presenting what she sees as an aggressive plan that will undoubtedly improve her hospital's market share and make it more attractive to physicians. In her mind, the plan represents smart leadership that should excite every reasonable employee.
In the mind of her audience, however, the CFO's message is quite different. They hear: The numbers matter more, you matter less and thanks for asking.
It's a classic political train wreck.
It happens when two groups talk at each other rather than with each other. Both well-intentioned. Both working to do what's right. Both shutting down their interest and willingness to communicate because they don't believe it's worth the time. Cynicism and real management problems are just around the corner.
It's a language barrier, and it will wound your organization and your ability to lead if you can't break through it.
Successful politicians know that to be effective with any group, they must use the words, tone and approach that their audience will appreciate and that speaks to what's important to them. They don't change their goal because of the audience (that's a different matter entirely). Instead, they use different paths to bring different groups to the same point.
They may be dealing with a new tax, but the message is the "quality of life" that the monies will make possible. They may be dealing with a zoning change, but the message is "smart growth." Often in politics, the issue at hand must be placed in a much broader context to fully connect with the people politicians represent.
Political opponents work this way, too, of course. Announce a government lay-off and see how those opposed to the matter "personalize" their opinion on the evening television news. When it works, the specifics of a lay-off are illustrated with a feature on a single mom about to lose her job. The state accountant standing by to discuss the financial advantages of the lay-off gets short shrift at best or looks cold-hearted at worst.
In a sense, it's an emotional message vs. an analytical approach. It's heart vs. head. Guess which works best in politics?
Being sensitive to this language issue is particularly important in our industry where "healthcare as a business" and "healthcare as a mission" clash regularly in boardrooms and in the doctor's lounge and at your state capitol.
You see it in the not-so-uncommon example above. Our CFO was speaking from her head, making sharp intellectual arguments in favor of her plan. That was a mistake. Her audience didn't care about the math. They assume it's right, more often than not.
What these nurses needed was an address that touched their sense of mission and recognized their importance to the organization, even as the hospital held the line on overtime pay. For the right reasons, people will make numerous sacrifices for an organization or a community. But they need to be reminded of their nobility and thanked for it.
This audience needed something that made them trust the hospital's leadership. People put their trust in other people - not plans or blueprints or five-year strategies or projections. It's the relationship that matters. Delivering your message in a way your audience appreciates (even if they don't necessary like its meaning) is fundamental to political success.
None of this means context is everything and content is nothing. For some audiences the analytical, black-and-white message may be exactly the right tone and approach for success.
None of this means that every message you deliver should be touchy-feely, lets-hold-hands moments. It's almost always a mix of heart and head.
It means you must think about your audience before you think about your message. It means you must position what you say in terms that are not just clear, but meaningful to them. It means you and your team must have active relationships with every group of constituents that can help or hurt your organization.
The language barrier is yours to build or crush.
Healthcare is changing so rapidly that even health leaders have trouble keeping up, not to mention translating it to employees and physicians and board members and foundation members and volunteers.
Before you pitch or implement your next series of organizational changes designed to keep pace, take a breath, and consider your audience. Remember that even though you and your audience may speak the same language, that's different from speaking so they will understand your message as you hope they will. Use a common language of the heart and the head that enables you to speak with them.
David Jarrard is president of The Ingram Group, a public relations and government relations firm based in Nashville. The firm helps hospitals and healthcare organizations from California to Florida apply practical politics and aggressive communications in their communities. He can be contacted at (615) 254-0575 or via e-mail at email@example.com