Communication Lack in Cultural Resource Management is Bad for Business


My first permanent job in cultural resource management archaeology was an excellent learning opportunity for a number of reasons. I had the chance to work as a project field director, archaeological technician, pseudo-architectural historian, and historical archaeologist at a variety of different sites and project types across western Washington. I quickly learned a lot. The biggest problem was the fact that, even though I was pretty much straight out of college, I was left to my own devices much of the time.

There were no training wheels and I made a lot of expensive mistakes for the first few YEARS.

Whenever I had a new project, there was simply an unmarked folder with a two- to three-page scope of work and an organizational chart outlining the number of hours I could allocate to each task (mapping, graphs, background research, fieldwork, write-up, ect.). Sometimes, if the project was large enough, I had a brief (less than 30 minute) meeting with the principal investigaator or lead archaeologists where they would explain the background of the project and what they wanted me to do. That was it. The bosses were usually too busy to answer questions and I felt like I needed to prove myself, so I didn’t ask for help until it was too late.

Normally, I would set everything up and finish the fieldwork. It wasn’t until I began submitting written sections that I started finding out where I’d gone wrong. I almost always made mistakes. That’s when things started going bad.

The bosses would get angry at the fact that I had overlooked things. They hated when I went over budget. Other supervisors thought I needed to learn the nuances of Washington State prehistoric archaeology and would insist that I read dissertations and other obscure reports with hopes that I’d write better prehistory sections (It didn’t work because there was simply too much to learn in a few days and I didn’t care about that stuff. I just wanted my report to get past their desk, so I just skimmed the litterature and noted it in the report and in my works cited section).

After about three years, I was working on full cylinders. I could finish moderate-sized projects by myself, on schedule and on budget while also creating intersting work. Part of this was because I’d built up enough boilerplate to crib from when I didn’t have enough time to conduct detailed reseach. It was also because I’d gotten my ass kicked enough times to know better. While I eventually learned, it’s a shame I didn’t get some advice and mentoring before I wasted thousands of company and taxpayer dollars.

CRM archaeology suffes from a communication crisis

My inspiration for this post comes from an August 2013 article in Entrepreneur magazine by Joe Robinson– “The X-Factor: The Key to Developing Employees with Oomph is Communication” (41[5]:64). It’s a short piece that highlights several key elements to developing good, productive employees. Here are some of the key points:

— Engaged employes are more dedicated and committed. They have been proven to increase performance and profits.
— Companies with the highest levels of engagement (communication between management and employees) enjoyed 17% higher operating margin than the companies with the lowest engagement
— Forty percent of employees at low engagement companies were likely to leave in the next two years.
— The key is making employees feel valued and trusted.
— Recognizing effort is necessary to making employees feel valued.
— Positive feedback is essential to recognizing employee effort.

Basically, companies that have a high level of positive engagement have employees that care about their jobs, which makes them get more stuff done fasterincreasing company profits. How many CRM company supervisors ever do this?

If you’ve been doing CRM as long as I have, you probably don’t even know what “engagement” with your boss or management even is. If not, here are some simple questions that will help you approximate the level of engagement at your current employer.

1.  When is the last time your boss told you they valued your work and contribution?
2.  When was the last time you had a conversation with your boss where they weren’t looking at the computer screen typing?
3.  When was the last time you heard a co-worker working on a difficult project say, “I don’t care?”
4.  When was the last time you said “I don’t care” while working on something tough?
5.  Did your company’s “thanks” take the form of a gift certificate or bonus, or was it a sincere, face-to-face thank you or hand written thank you note? Did you get both?

If you’ve said “I don’t care” more recently than your boss said “thanks,” you’re probably working in a low engagement company. If you work at a low engagement company, you’re either reaching burnout or contemplating your next career move.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Every CRM company I’ve worked for has been low engagement. I have never worked at a place where communication has been high or where the supervisors ever told me what they were expecting. This has resulted in multiple mistakes, cost overruns, confusion, and a feeling of hopelessness. After about two years of working in a “sink or swim” environment, I’m usually ready to quit and try my luck at a new company. Unfortunately, I’ve never found a CRM or environmental consulting company with a high level of engagement, so I’ve always had to find satisfaction outside the workplace (blogging, conducting academic research for articles, writing eBooks– pretty much anything archaeology related that isn’t work-related).

Fortunately, I’m a field director and have placed in situations where I’ve been given a chance to create a high level of engagement with my crews. I’ve found that communicating effectively with co-workers is especially important for mid-level managers such as myself because we’re usually caught between upper management’s goals (make/save more money, make clients happy) and lower-level employees’ goals (get a paycheck, get opportunities for advancement). I’ve also been placed in situations where I’ve needed to rally exhausted co-workers in order to get projects done and salvage poorly scoped or lowballed projects.

Here are some of the techniques I use to keep communication channels open:

1.  Treat co-workers like they’re equals and humans– It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to the CEO or the janitor, everyone deserves respect… at least, initially.
2.  Take the other person’s perspective into account– All of your co-workers have personal career goals and reasons why they do what they do. It really helps to think about these motivations while you’re interacting with them.
3.  Give positive comments freely– Tell co-workers you appreciate their help. This goes a very long way.
4.  Seek input from others– Ask your co-workers for advice and information whenever you do not immediately know what to do or when you want to make subordinates feel like they’re contributing to the project’s goals. Use the wisdom of crowds.
5.  Know when to accept advice and when to make your own decision.
6.  Share information freely and quickly– Don’t be an info hoarder. You will look like an insecure weakling if you allow a co-worker to knowingly make a mistake that you could have helped them avoid.

Like I mentioned in my post on banishing the sink or swim mentality in CRM, the crappy communication that is rampant throughout our industry hurts everyone. Mangers that fail to connect with subordinates cost the company time and money. I know you’re always “too busy”, but a simple thanks given to a subordinate while walking to the bathroom is a great start. Also, what takes more time: sufficiently explaining what you know about a project in detail to your subordinate or mopping up the disaster they’ll create after they go out there and waste your budget doing all the wrong things? Mid- and low-level CRMers should also realize the importance of communicating amongst ourselves. I can’t tell you how many horribly written historical backgrounds, historical artifact analysis sections, and historical archaeology site discriptions I’ve seen created by the prehistoric archaeologists at my company. They write this crap because they never even take 5 minutes to ask me about how it could be done better.

The communication breakdown also extends beyond our offices. We normally fail to communicate the reasons why CRM is valuable to our clients (permitting as well as good faith with neaby communities). We’re also horrible at telling communities why archaeology is important and what we do as CRMers, which is why they think its okay to make television shows about looting sites.

If CRM is going to remain a viable career field that provides value to society, we are going to have to fix our communication problems and become a high engagement industry. This movement has to start in our offices.

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