I must admit I really enjoy the use of the verb “communicate” in Modern Greek slang as a “certification of sanity.”

“Epikinonis? (do you…communicate?),” my daughters ask me every time I say something that sounds crazy to them … and they couldn’t be more accurate.

This “certification of sanity” necessitates three important prerequisites. First, it requires that you belong to a system in which other parts exist, be it your family, your business, your circle of friends or society. Then, it states that if you cannot interact through effective communication you cannot truly belong, you cannot be a functional part of this system and collaborate with other parts productively. In other words, even if you are “sane,” you still need to prove it by your ability to communicate. Last, it rules out “mumbling,” i.e. you need to have a clear message to deliver to the other parts.

Do these prerequisites apply to our modern business organizations? How can we still be “sane” in this volatile environment? We certainly need to be. This need translates as a necessity to constantly and effectively communicate—bidirectionally— with our customers. And the key is in the notion of bidirectionality. We must present our case through marketing, receive feedback, then realign decisions and take actions based on this feedback, confirm and close this loop, only to repeat it again and again. Otherwise, we run the risk of traversing from the sane to the insane—from the meaningful to the meaningless.

In this wonderful and continuous process, there is a small hidden form of radical communication, expressed in Systems Theory, that is truly fascinating. It even has a Greek name—“Algedonic Alerting”—a combination of the word “άλγος,” meaning pain and “ηδονή,” meaning pleasure. This is a kind of “direct line” linking the lower levels of a system to top management, which should be used under certain conditions, to bypass swiftly all other forms of structured hierarchy. For example, when in danger, when all control panel lights are red and flashing, you need to get your message across, and fast, so a reaction is instant. This mechanism is undoubtedly extremely important.

What is needed, I believe, is to expand the process so it becomes bidirectional. This would lead to a practice not unusual in small businesses, similar to when a restaurateur walks among his tables, introduces himself and receives customer ratings (pain and pleasure) firsthand. In larger organizations we tend to hide behind the walls of our structure, dodge firsthand contact with our customers, and avoid real, truthful communication. Instead, messages from our customers, filtered through multiple layers, slowly reach us without any barbs, losing true value and leaving us indifferent, increasing our inertia, with the opposite effect than the one we need. And our messages? Irrelevant, uninteresting and obsolete.

As a consultant in retail with long hours on the shop floor, tracking what customers do and talking to them, I have found the most valuable advice and feedback through the bi-directional process. And I urge all “kings”—retail or not— to wear humble clothes once in a while, walk among the common folk, and talk with them. Painful or pleasurable, it is always a reality check of exceptional value and a realignment tool like no other. And a way of ensuring your sanity—or, as my daughters would say, “Epikinonis?”

Article by Alexander Athanassoulas, Business Partners magazine [April 2011]