I Even Followed Up With an E-Mail!

What is the definition of communication? Is that definition shared throughout the organization? Is there a system of defined communication processes? How much waste is being created by miscommunication? What is the outcome of communication?

Communication is one process used to bring everyone into shared understanding. You’ve arrived at shared understanding when all parties can verify their understanding. Everyone receiving the message should have a similar understanding to other message recipients. The exact measure of understanding depends on the level of tolerated variance while maintaining target outcomes.

A parent asking their teen to clean up his or her room may become frustrated when the teen’s room is the same condition at the end of the day. Parental frustration may rise when the teen points out that the parent never stated when the room needed to be picked up. In this case the parent did not arrive at a shared depth of understanding required to deliver the intended message. The parent informed the teen of the room cleanliness expectation, but did not communicate the full details.

Informing is a component of communication. However relying on informing alone is a counterfeit for real shared understanding. How many times do we think informative details were sufficient only to find others differed in their understanding? Perhaps a detailed e-mail was sent only to find either it went unread or misinterpreted. There may have been a slide show in a meeting, a discussion in a hallway or a coaching session behind closed doors. But each conversation ends with the same results.  Somewhere along the line there is confusion. Things are not happening as expected. Team members become tentative, sensing something is out of order. Bosses show frustration, not seeing the progress toward the outcomes they had been promised.

In an effort to uncover the problem (or assign the blame) e-mails are reviewed, meeting notes scrutinized and lists of “action items” opened. Efforts are redoubled with increased effort in getting the e-mails and slide shows “right.” Managers send an open invitation for questions. Efforts are made to slow down, speak louder and provide information more frequently.

In communication the sender must determine the primary message he or she hopes to convey. The content of the communication must be encoded into a format the target audience can receive. If the communication is routine, meaning senders and receivers have experience with this format and content, the process and opportunity for understanding gets easier. In these cases, the amount of deliberate thought put into the communication process might be minimal, and may only include a quick proofread or review of talking points. Dealing with unfamiliar content or delivery channel? Reaching shared understanding can be more complex.

Even routine communications can become difficult under stress. An executive conducts a routine quarterly briefing with her team. The executive prefers a casual atmosphere and uses a few slides as an introduction and follows with a question and answer session. An optimistic atmosphere promotes a back and forth that results in the team putting the past results in context and providing perspective for individual performance going forward. Consider this routine forum following subpar performance accompanied by rumors of selling off underperforming business units. In this situation, statements may be more closely examined, and questions that reveal anxiety and skepticism permeate the atmosphere.

Effective communication requires both the sender and receiver understanding the message. While this seems like a tautology, it means the sender know on what key points the receiver needs to understand when the message. This includes not only encoding the content, but also considering how the receiver verifies understanding. The receiver must consider how the content will be processed and what methods he or she will use to communicate understanding.  For non-routine communications both sender and receiver share connected responsibility in arriving at a shared understanding.

Communication needs be a two-way conduit between sender and receiver. This back and forth can be facilitated in multiple ways. A boss delegating work to a deputy may ask the deputy to brief back what the deputy understands to be the delegated task including its intended outcome and allocated resources. The exchange may go through several cycles before the sender and receiver are confident that understanding is shared to a degree needed to deliver the results. A team leader may ask the team to provide a summary of their understanding of a project and their role in execution. 

A second fundamental is that individuals receiving the message can ask clarifying questions. A sender open to questions can adjust the message so to achieve receiver understanding. Progressive elaboration of thoughts and ideas creates a broader foundation for understanding. Fewer errors can deliver results in less time with the commitment of fewer human and financial resources. Outcomes that are delivered by consuming fewer resources create higher value.

Looking at communication from this perspective diminishes the differences between sender and receiver. All parties in communication have a responsibility to arrive at a shared understanding of the message. Participants need to determine how detailed that understanding has to be to deliver the target results.  

Is there a common process established for your team’s communication?


Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC