COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM JONES

Workplace communication means more than conveying words

Getting your point across to a subordinate who may not be as attentive as you'd like requires some skillful crafting of your message. On an individual level, it requires you to say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Additionally, as a representative of the company, you must confirm that what you say aligns with the corporation's goals -- preferably before the subordinate takes any action.

Attentive employees have no trouble realizing when your intentions are not clear. They know because they sense a lack of perspective, understanding and acceptance. In other words if what they hear coming from you doesn't match up with what they know about the organization, they automatically ask for clarification.

Nonattentive employees also sense that something isn't right, but instead of searching for the true meaning behind an ambiguous directive, they simply whine and complain that no one ever tells them the truth.

I recently came across an old handout from a communication workshop that was titled "Power Points in Listening." Every point on the sheet made good sense, but two struck me as relevant to this challenge: (1) You cannot not communicate, and (2) Whenever contact is made, communication occurs.

These two statements have helped me to understand that communicating intent involves a lot more than conveying words. Even when words are transferred from one person to another, their intention may not be fully understood by either. Studies on communication methodologies show that even when a message is perceived, 70 percent to 90 percent of it is lost or changed in the transmission.

Communication channels

If you carefully studied the flow of information through the official communication channels in most organizations, you're likely to find that information going down the chain of command is directive, authoritative and task-focused. Coming back up, it takes the form of complaining, criticism and resistance.

Here's what it looks like to someone from the outside.

I once overheard a disgruntled employee in the break room complaining that his boss only shared information with the "brown nosers" who hung around his office after work. This unhappy chap declared that he would not kiss anybody's backside just to find out what was happening. His bluster was rewarded with a round of cheers and slaps on the back from those nearest to him.

Later that day, I had an opportunity to meet with many of these same folks in a communication training seminar. After letting them know what I'd overheard in the break room, I challenged them to tell me how keeping information from them could possibly benefit their boss.

Following several half-hearted attempts to respond, the fellow I had overheard in the break room earlier suggested there might not be any good reason, other than the fact their boss was a jerk. When the laughter subsided, I acknowledged that possibility, but challenged them to tell me why working for a jerk should prevent them from doing a good job.

They soon understood that their boss was not intentionally hiding information from them; he just didn't know how to communicate. We spent the remainder of that day defining ways they could seek clarification from their boss whenever they were not clear about his intentions.

Building trust

There is little trust in today's fast-paced workplace. Managers and their subordinates are too often forced to build working relationships before they are given the opportunity to learn to trust one another.

The widespread adoption of electronic and voice messaging systems have further reduced the amount of face-to-face communication between all levels of employees, making the development of trust even less likely. Why?

Many managers rely on voice and e-mail because it allows them to communicate with several individuals simultaneously without having to have them come together in one location.

Nonattentive employees prefer these impersonal methodologies, because they find indirect communication to be less threatening than a face-to-face encounter. But email and voice messages actually increase the likelihood of misunderstanding because they are highly subject to ambiguity.

How many times have you been frustrated by a meeting with several employees, in which each waves a copy of your latest email, quotes what you said, notes what you obviously meant, and then offers a different interpretation?

Without the support of a person-to-person dialogue, nonverbal communications are subject to individual interpretation and thus are primary sources of ambiguity and inconsistency. Remember, in the midst of inconsistency, it is difficult to clarify your intention unless you have the opportunity to align your verbal and nonverbal communications.


Jones is a management consultant and author of "Help! I'm Surrounded By Idiots," and "If It's Broken, You Can Fix It." Read his blog at worxinc.com.

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