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The Rule of 10

If you've ever studied ecology, you probably know how "consumer" organisms acquire energy by eating other organisms. Along a food chain, there is a sequential order in which organisms consume each other. Ecologists call those feeding ranks trophic levels. The "Rule of 10" says that only 10 percent of available energy passes from one trophic level to the next; the rest is lost as heat. Nature abandons so much energy between successive species that food chains seldom exceed four or five trophic levels.

I see a striking similarity between ecological food chains and most leadership communication. Too often, our messages lose their meanings as each level of the corporate chain consumes the information. Second-hand information is usually inaccurate or incomplete. And if the information is misconstrued, how can we expect the message's tone to go through several levels intact? I'd say it's likely that only 10 percent of a message makes it through each level of communication. The rest, like forgone energy, is just hot air.

Here's a workplace example of an information feeding cycle in action: A leader tells some colleagues in a meeting, "We have excellent employees, and because we continue to grow, we need more people just like them. So, ask your staffs if anyone knows someone looking for a job and, if so, to please let us know. We're still looking for good people." After multiple employee trophic levels devour the message, this is what people at the bottom of the corporate food chain hear: "They're looking for some good people. Apparently, we're not good people."

Nothing saps the energy out of an organization faster than poor communication. So, if you're a leader, remember this Rule of 10: Only 10 percent of your intended meaning passes from one messenger to the next.

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