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Avoiding Common Workplace Communication Mistakes

There is an old expression, which in the interest of not offending anyone, we will paraphrase:

If you run into a jerk in the morning, you ran into a jerk; if you run into jerks all day, you're the jerk.

A similar principle applies to the workplace, particularly when it comes to communication. If you are constantly being misunderstood, or constantly having to repeat yourself, the problem isn't your colleagues and employees. It is you.

Communication mistakes in the workplace are not limited only to misunderstandings, but also to ineffective communication - sharing too little or too much - and the lack of a communication strategy. Poorly managed communication within the workplace can easily lead to poor motivation, and even conflict.

How you manage conflict within the workplace depends on your company culture and values, but how you avoid (or reduce) conflict often depends on how you manage communication.

Incorrect Use of Email

Email, text messages and IM have made it easier for us to quickly communicate with friends, family, colleagues and employees, regardless of where we are. The convenience these forms of communication afford us is, unfortunately, open to misuse. Where we once might have joked about being fired via email, it is now a reality - and it has been happening for some time already.

In 2006 RadioShack terminated 400 employees via email, and more recently, a Chicago based sandwich shop fired 20 employees the same way, two days before Christmas. Even if we ignore the timing of the sandwich shop's email, the ethics of firing staff via email remain questionable.

Delivering bad news is never easy, but this is not a valid reason for doing so in writing. Any news or information that could be misunderstood, or have an emotional impact, should be delivered in person. Where logistics, in the form of remote workers, make this impractical, consider a video or telephone call.

All of these approaches give those affected an opportunity to ask questions, and for you to offer support, neither of which is possible in an email or text message.

The same applies to situations where you need to give someone negative feedback, or a colleague has upset you. Both of these warrant a discussion, an opportunity for all persons involved to respond, or ask questions. Just because you would not mind receiving negative feedback and other bad news in an email does not suggest that it is acceptable to your colleagues.

Reaction ≠ Response

Although reaction and response are synonymous, there are situations where a reaction is less desirable than a response. A reaction reveals a person's emotional response to a situation or information, with the risk of unintended consequences.

A better way of dealing with upsetting information is to employ the five principles of listening:

  • Receive. This is hearing the message, and the first step in processing.
  • Understand. This is taking in what you have just heard, and interpreting it.
  • Evaluate. This is a critical step as it involves you forming your own opinion on what you have just heard (and interpreted), separating fact from opinion (or speculation), and evaluating the quality of the information.
  • Remember. Storing what you have just heard (mentally) for future reference.
  • Respond.

Ask questions, remembering that different types of questions reveal more than focusing only on one type:

Closed questions require brief answers, focusing either on yes or no answers, or on making a choice. Leading questions can help reveal additional information by pointing respondents in a certain direction. Asking "Are you going to meet the deadline?" will probably elicit a simple YES or NO answer, while "How do you feel about the deadline?"I know the report isn't due until next week might encourage the respondent to share any concerns they might have about meeting the deadline, with reasons. Recall questions are good when you are trying to analyse a situation - What happened then?, Why did you do X instead of Y?

Emotional reactions block discussions, and increase the likelihood of misunderstandings, as will constant interruptions from you. Allow the speaker to finish before you respond, either with statements or questions.

Sharing Too Much/Too Little Information

Put two children on a see-saw (or teeter-totter), and at some point they will try to balance the board in the middle of a pivot. When communicating we are constantly at risk of losing the balance between giving too much or too little information.

There is a mistaken belief that the more information you have, the more power you have. Another way of looking at it is that the more information you have, the better equipped you are to deal with a situation. This is not always true, since an excess of information can create as much anxiety as too little information.

Too little information, on the other hand, implies missing information - critical details that have not been shared.

Start by sharing only information that is critical to whoever you are talking to, while giving them opportunities to ask leading questions. As with many important discussions, it helps if you have prepared beforehand, not necessarily writing a script, but having a rough draft of what you want to say and then evaluating the importance of each point.

The Cookie Cutter Approach to Communication

Leading on from the last point is the problem of the cookie cutter approach, using one style in all your communication, regardless of the situation and the participants.

Your weekly all-hands meeting might be informal, but the same approach won't work for meetings with clients, business partners and even investors. It helps to adjust your communication style to each situation, while also taking into account the different personalities found in your average workplace.

If you have ever attended a formal group training session, you might have noticed that the training combined a presentation with a manual, and role-playing activities. This is to accommodate the various learning styles - with some people learning through reading, while others learn more through a hands-on approach.

Not Checking for Understanding

How often do you check for understanding after you have shared information? Probably less often than you think.

We make assumptions that we have communicated clearly, and at the same time we are reluctant to check for understanding because we are worried about being seen as condescending. But checking for understanding is not condescending - it is a strategy employed by teachers and trainers, at all levels.

How you do it is what matters.

The repeat-back is the most common approach, but instead of asking people to repeat what you have said, parrot fashion, ask them questions:

  • When is the deadline?
  • What do you need to do first?
  • Who will you be working with?

This doesn't only show you that what you have said has been understood, it also helps you to check whether you left out any important information.

Following up is a more discrete way of checking for understanding, allowing you to ask more relevant questions - “I know the report isn't due until next week, but I wanted to check if you're encountering any problems?”

Not Respecting the Privacy of Others

Email, social media and mobile phones have all combined to turn boundaries and privacy into a very grey area. Whenever we use any of these we risk oversharing personal information about ourselves and others, along with sensitive company information.

When sharing sensitive information make sure it is only passed on to relevant people, and that they understand it is not meant for further distribution internally and externally. Similarly, if someone shares sensitive information with you, either of a personal nature or relating to the company, don't share it with anyone else unless they have asked you to.

Autocratic Communication

Having a strong, clear-cut leadership style is beneficial in many ways, but not when it translates into an autocratic style of communication, where the leader is the only person making decisions and communicating instructions.

With no outside input tolerated.

The input of everyone in an organisation should be encouraged, and valued. And when you have to make a tough decision that goes against the input or feedback you have received from your employees, take the time to explain why.

Encouraging Effective Communication

Now that we have looked at a few common communication mistakes, and how to avoid them, we can briefly look at what steps you can take to promote effective communication in the workplace.

  • Have a policy (formal or informal) for dealing with workplace conflicts. While the ideal would be for employees to resolve their conflicts on their own, some disputes can be more serious and require intervention.
  • Encourage employees (including yourself) to proofread all written communications before sending them. The idea is not so much to check spelling and grammar, but to double check that the message is clear - have you used any vague jargon, or acronyms and abbreviations that might be confusing. They should be judging the overall tone, and their choice of words, while also looking for any missing information.
  • Many startups and small businesses have started using services like HipChat in the workplace because they are very effective in promoting communication between employees, especially where departments and offices are spread out across multiple locations. Having this open form of communication helps employees feel more connected, while also building interpersonal relationships.
  • Develop a culture of feedback, not only between management and employees, but between employees themselves. Positive feedback from anyone boosts motivation, but even negative feedback can be delivered in a way that doesn't destroy confidence. As with constructive criticism, negative feedback should be shared along with proposed solutions, or advice on what can be done to improve.
  • Help employees to understand when each form of communication is most appropriate. Face-to-face (or one-on-one) meetings are required for important discussions, and those of a personal nature, such as termination. Group meetings are best for anything that affects a large number of people, and where employee input is needed, while telephonic and electronic communications can be used for most other communication both formal and informal. However, when information is required urgently, a phone call can be a lot more effective than a text message or email.
  • Use the carbon copy (cc) and reply all field on email to shorten your internal feedback loop. This involves sending internal communications to specific people, but then also cc'ing relevant colleagues or departments. This allows work, and feedback, to continue even if the intended is away, or off ill. Naturally this approach does not apply to email containing sensitive, or personal, information.

Finally, workshops and training are essential, but these too should be tailored to match the personalities of your workforce, and the culture of the company. What benefit could you possibly derive from encouraging a fun and inclusive workplace, and then sending staff to workshops and training sessions that date from a period when business was nothing but fifty shades of beige?

Conclusion

The more openly and effectively everyone in the workplace communicates, the less likely you are to sit with conflicts arising from misunderstanding; not forgetting any need for endless repetition. This translates into better morale, and higher levels of motivation; and a highly motivated workplace is a productive workplace.

On 23.04.2014 in Our Way and Project Management