I have a theory about communication that says, “Everybody already knows everything.”
The theory is called, “The Everybody-Already-Knows-Everything Theory of Communication.”
Born out of observations of interpersonal communication, the theory is only slightly less applicable to employee communication. It goes like this:
Based on the hundreds and thousands of unwitting hints and omissions, odd looks and facial reactions, words and silences, patterns of presence and absence over time, people come to know everything they need to know about their family, their friends, and yes, even their company.
That's right, everything.
To illustrate my theory, I share the instance that brought me to it.
Some years ago, a very close family member—someone I have known since I was small—broke up with a guy she’d been dating for years. I’d always been friendly to the guy—he was boring and self-pitying, but he treated her well and loved her—but I told her I was supportive of the breakup, because I thought she could do much better. “Why didn’t you tell me that six months ago?” she said. “I would have broken up with him then.”
And I thought: You’ve known me all my life. By now you know what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like when I am talking to someone who I admire, and also what it looks, sounds and feels like when I’m being polite to someone who bores me, who makes me uncomfortable, who makes me nervous, who makes me sad. I don’t need to tell you what I think of your boyfriend; you already know. The only question is whether you’re going to acknowledge it, and when.
So clear was that to me that I began to apply it to other situations where people have frequent contact with one another over a period of months or years, and my Everybody-Already-Knows-Everything Theory of Communication began to form.
Because of a thousand signals, a friend knows when he’s second-fiddle, a colleague knows a real compliment from a political kudos, a direct report knows you know when he's slacking, a boss knows if you think she's dumb, and eventually, the whole of the employee population knows whether management is in touch or out of touch, sympathetic or downright creepy.
This is why communication is usually not earth-shattering to people who, after all, had more than an inkling in the first place.
It is why sincere, thoughtful communication—no matter how provocative—is usually a comfort and often a relief from the constant tension of knowledge without permission to acknowledge.
If you accept this theory—(it goes down easier as the People-Know-More-Than-We-Think Theory of Communication)—the implication is not that communication is unnecessary, or that it is a formality.
It means our essential responsibility as personal and organizational communicators is not to spoon out information slowly to babies with weak digestion systems. Rather, it’s to try desperately to keep up, verbally, with the massive flow of unvarnished truth that our behavior is sending, and that our family, friends and colleagues are receiving every day.