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A Black Hole in Corporate Communication

April 2, 2003
I was in New York last week with my friend Ray, who works for a multinationalfinancial services firm. He and his coworkers from around the country hadgathered in the city for a week to review marketing plans and revenue goals.Which they did. But during the meetings, the Pooh-Bahs in his division alsocryptically mentioned the possibility of a division-wide restructuring.Something they called a "re-org."

    After the second day of meetings, I returned to the Embassy Suites to findRay sitting on the couch, staring into space, his shirt rumpled and untucked.

    This worried me. Ray is never rumpled. I asked if he was okay.

    "What do they mean by re-org?" he asked, still staring straight ahead."I’ll tell you what they mean. They mean job cuts. I think I’m okay--butmaybe not. Maybe I’m not okay. Do you think I’m okay?" He didn’t waitfor an answer.

    "I should’ve talked more during the meeting today," he said. "Ishould’ve gone to the dinner last night. I should’ve worn black shoes. Ilooked too casual."

    I told him I thought layoffs were rarely decided on the basis of shoe color.

    "YOU don’t know these people," he shouted, as red blotches bloomedacross his neck. "I just don’t understand why they’re doing this."

    Ray crossed his arms over his chest and began rocking back and forth, clearlyon the edge of a gale-force panic attack. I tiptoed from the room and shut thedoor. From down the hallway, I could hear him repeating the phrase "re-org,re-org, re-org" like a stuck 45 on a diner jukebox.

    At the time, I felt that Ray’s behavior was a tad extreme. After all, hiscompany’s restructuring was far from certain--and besides, no one knew whatit would entail. But the next day I went to an exhibit on Albert Einstein at theAmerican Museum of Natural History and experienced, firsthand, the panic andconjecture that come from not knowing how to interpret information. Physics willdo that to you.

    The exhibit started off well enough. I entered the hushed museum and learnedabout Einstein as a young boy. I reviewed a copy of his report card, whichrefutes the myth that he was not a motivated child. I saw a replica of thecompass that launched Einstein’s fascination with the forces of nature. And,in something that belongs in the "who knew?" category, I read one of themany love letters he wrote to one of his many mistresses. Apparently, Einsteinwas a hottie in his day, a babe-magnet with a large romantic appetite.

    But then, as I began to read about Einstein’s theories, my sunny enjoymentof the day disappeared behind a dark cloud of ignorance.

    I read about his general theory of relativity, which overturned the classicNewtonian view of gravity, which said that apples never fall far from the tree,or some such thing.

    I read about the imaginary gravity of projected black holes, which helps toexplain why SUVs plow into sinkholes on rainy days.

    I learned about Einstein’s search for a grand unified theory that wouldexplain everything about everything, including, I presume, why Michael Jacksonthinks he’s Peter Pan.

    See, the more I read about Einstein’s work, the less I understood it. Andthe less I understood it, the more I felt compelled to fill in the gaps with myown interpretation. Even though I listened to the curator’s talk, and watcheda film narrated by Alan Alda, and reviewed the 72 handwritten pages that make upEinstein’s theory of relativity, I couldn’t grasp what his theories reallymeant.

    I started to get agitated and speed through the exhibit. Gravitational warps?The space-time continuum? Yeah, yeah, whatever.

    By the time I hit the gift shop at the end of the exhibit, I had a massiveheadache caused, no doubt, by an unprecedented cerebral failure. I sped past thewall of books on Einstein and picked up a souvenir writing pen. Ahhhh. This wassomething I could understand. So simple. So elegant. I held it to my chest untilmy breathing returned to normal.

    And when it did, I thought about my friend Ray and his company’s re-org. Ibegan to understand his panic over the proposed restructuring. He didn’tunderstand why it was necessary. He didn’t understand how it could affect him.He didn’t understand why he’d been told that information. And in the absenceof all that understanding, he filled in the black holes with his own warped viewof the outcome.

    As Einstein might explain it, Ray was suffering from an extreme case ofE=MC2, which I believe means that expectations are driven by managementcommunication--or the lack thereof. 

Workforce, April 2003, p. 24 -- Subscribe Now!


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