Communication, where do we go wrong?
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Communication is often cited as one of the main issues or contributing factors between good or bad experiences with leadership or in the workplace in general. You don’t have to search very far on the internet, in organisational behaviour texts or research papers to read about the relevance of communication for individuals, teams and organisations. So what do we get wrong, or what are we missing, seemingly continuously, in our communication behaviour that leads to such poor outcomes and misunderstandings?
Let’s start with a story.
When I was young, about six years old, my father asked (told) me to vacuum the lounge room. I remember it clearly, it was the 80’s, the carpet was deep brown, a standard pile common in most houses in that era, and brushing it one direction would leave it dark, and in the other, lighter. So you could clearly see where the Hoover upright vacuum had travelled. That Hoover even had a light on it that illuminated whenever you angled the handle down to vacuum under the couches. It was the closest thing to a spaceship we had.
Vacuuming at that age meant boldly going where no six-year-old had gone before. And I had no qualms about mixing universes and allowing my USS Hooverprise from Starfleet being manned by light-sabre wielding Jedi. Was I motivated to vacuum the lounge room? Most certainly.
So what were the elements of communication in this story?
My father’s intention was likely that I help with the housework and vacuum the lounge room to a standard deemed appropriate by him. (As an ex-military member and father myself now, I know what that standard is, but when I was six? I didn’t even know “standards” existed.)
Dad’s communication was pretty simple: “Kieran, vacuum the lounge room.” Dad’s intended meaning was that I vacuum the lounge room to the required standard; that is, all areas of the carpet vacuumed and in an acceptable time frame. Thirty minutes would have been a pretty laid back pace.
When I heard Dad’s communication, my perceived meaning was more like “Kieran, use the vacuum in the general area of the lounge room, and don’t forget your light-sabre”.
Would we call this communication effective or efficient? Not quite. So what was the outcome?
Well I discovered new civilisations and battled foes of untold ferocity between stardate 2231 and 22… actually I probably didn’t even know what a year was, so just waaay in the future. In any case, adventure ensued and time passed.
From Dad’s perspective, an hour later the carpet was criss-crossed with vacuum tracks in random patterns concentrated around the legs of the couches and a vast emptiness near the doorways and centre of the lounge room. Consequently, the next communication from my father was “Kieran, if you are going to do a job, do it properly! Don’t do half a job!”
So what went wrong?
The measure of good communication, is when the perceived meaning is the same as the intending meaning. This was certainly not the case in my story and the reason is down to assumptions and lack of feedback.
We make assumptions all the time. According to research, we do this, while generally lacking awareness of doing it - it is simply the path of least resistance for our brains. It’s easier for us to just assume people understand us. “If I know it, surely everyone else knows it.” But we know making assumptions is not helpful, the internet is full of stories or images where assumptions result in bad outcomes. In the military, assumptions can lead to loss of life.
Even writing this article, which is a form of communication, I am making assumptions which can affect the impact of my message. For example, I am assuming you understand the link to the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. I am also assuming that when I say “according to research” you understand that I am by no means an expert and I certainly invite you to check out the research yourself.
Dad assumed I understood that he wanted all areas of the carpet vacuumed in an acceptable time frame. But due to my six-year-old values, perceptions, motivation and knowledge, I understood it was vacuum-cleaner-adventure-time. There was no common understanding, and this happens everyday between individuals, teams and organisations.
When the executive team defines the top company objectives for the year, are they assuming these objectives mean the same thing for everyone else in the organisation? When a manager directs a team member to perform a task, are they assuming the expected outcome and standard is commonly understood? When we tell someone about an experience of ours, do we assume they understand our reality in the same way we do?
As people, we are all individual in how we perceive our reality, what motivates us, what knowledge or wisdom we have learned, what we believe in and what we value. In order to communicate effectively, we need to account for these differences and we can do that if we eliminate assumptions. How do we do this? Two really easy options, depending on the situation, are:
1. Ask for feedback to clarify understanding.
Dad might have asked me to tell him how I was going to vacuum the lounge. This would have identified any misunderstandings. Specifically, that when spaceships explore they should cover all areas of the carpet to make sure all foes are accounted for, not just under the couch.
Executive teams might ask representatives from all levels in the business what the objectives mean for people in their specific functions, to see if the objectives are even relevant or achievable.
When we are listening to someone, we might ask clarifying questions to check if our perceived meaning is the same as their intended meaning.
2. Document the standards and expectations.
Good management practice is to ensure that policy, plans, and procedures accurately communicate the required standards and expectations (including behavioural expectations). Clear concise information removes assumptions. The military has libraries of plans, procedures and instructions. It ensures activities can be completed repeatedly to the same standard. It can also keep people alive.
Even a simple checklist defining what steps are needed to be taken, or a statement on what the agreed behaviours are for workplace meetings can remove assumptions and establish common understanding. Maybe even a sketch of a flight pattern that would ensure no carpet was missed.
If we want to improve our leadership and workplaces in general, we can start by improving our communication. We need to build communication behaviours, and habits for that matter, that ensure we become aware of any assumptions we are making, ask for feedback to clarify understanding, and if necessary document agreed standards and expectations. This will complete the communication loop and help ensure individuals, teams and organisations can establish common understanding… and clean carpets.