There was a misunderstanding. The ball was dropped. We had two different things in mind. There was no effective busines communication.
There are a lot of different ways to explain what happened after a deadline has been unexpectedly missed, a deliverable doesn’t meet the requirements, or answers to seemingly straightforward questions don’t seem to be forthcoming. Oftentimes, these problems come down to effective communication. When effective communication isn’t happening, then the ability to execute critical tasks is hampered. Colleagues can’t produce their best work. Clients grow frustrated. And vendors can’t efficiently provide service.
Thinking back on my college studies, which were, admittedly, a number of years ago now, I can remember discussion in one of my classes around the difference between signifiers and signifieds. The difference boils down to the fact that we communicate ideas and concepts (the “signified”) through various means like written words, spoken words, pictures, facial expressions, and gestures (“signifiers”). The most basic problems in communication can come when a word or phrase means something different between two people. One person has an idea in their head, they express it with words, those words are heard by the other person, then that person interprets it as a different concept they understand from those words. This is especially true when one or more of the persons involved are communicating in a second language.
For instance, if I say, “Let’s meet at the train station at dinner time.” Based on my experience and concept of when “dinner time” is, I might arrive at the train station around 6:00 PM. My French colleague might think he needs to arrive there around 8:00 PM. A client of mine from Spain might be thinking we’ve agreed to get there around 10:30 PM. Clearly, in this circumstance, I’ll be spending approximately the equivalent of half a workday waiting around the train station.
Examples of poor communication don’t have to be this extreme. The underlying point is that it’s important to ensure that ideas and concepts being communicated are actually understood sufficiently the same by the other person. In my time at AdvantageCS, I’ve seen examples of frustrations growing based on this type of miscommunication. The Support Center is working on a client support issue that indicates that there are a number of subscriptions with the “wrong term”. Wait, does that mean the wrong term number (the subscription is on its third term after renewing only once) or the wrong term length (the subscription is for six issues when it should be for seven issues)? Clients don’t appreciate it when we spend valuable consulting hours working on an issue to only later find we misunderstood the problem, so we’d better clarify first. Or, we tell a client that “we should be able to have that resolved by the end of the day”. Is that a firm commitment that the client can communicate to others in their organization? Or, is that a best-case scenario?
For businesses to operate effectively, expectations need to be clear. Many decisions are made and commitments understood based on what’s communicated to set those expectations. Even worse than unclear communication, though, is the lack of communication. When nothing has been communicated, then people are left guessing or wondering. With no clear expectations, then decisions are made with too little information, or decisions are postponed until a point when conditions might be less ideal. If I have a colleague that I expect is available and able to help with an urgent issue, just one Microsoft Teams message away to be exact, then I might send them a message for an issue that’s urgent. After 15 minutes they haven’t responded yet, but I’m being patient since I expect they’ll respond soon. After an hour, I then escalate by trying to call them and leave a message. Another half-hour later after getting no response, I message another colleague in Teams asking if they know what’s going on with my first colleague. A minute later, I get the response, “oh, she’s out and unavailable today”.
I’ve now lost an hour and a half on the issue I was trying to resolve. Was it my colleague’s fault for not communicating that she would be out through an out-of-office autoreply, on the team calendar, or wherever else it should be communicated? Or, does the fault lie with me for utilizing a single-stream communication method and slow escalation on an urgent issue?
Whether it’s miscommunication or missed communication, many operational problems can be chalked up to communication. For this reason, it’s important to have communication best practices that are understood (dare I say, well-communicated?) throughout the organization. These will vary based on the context in which the organization operates. With the “new normal” that came with COVID no longer being new, reviewing your communication best practices to ensure they meet your current working environment can be key.
While they will vary by organization, some initial areas to target might be:
- Have a common vocabulary that’s understood and used consistently. Especially when onboarding new employees, this is something to work into the training.
- Establish clear expectations for which channels of communication should be used.
- Different types of communication often warrant different channels, especially where the urgency varies.
- Know which communications should be synchronous (real-time) and which should be asynchronous (each party responds on their own time). This is key for avoiding both inefficiency and team member frustration.
- Ensure that the availability of team members can be easily seen. This includes not just exceptional circumstances, but also if a particular team member has something other than a “normal” schedule.
- Understand what amount and type of communication should be utilized by team members.
- Communication of information that’s irrelevant to the recipient causes less attention to future communication, in addition to utilizing that recipient’s time to process the irrelevant information.
- Not communicating relevant information causes needless uncertainty, poor decision-making, and inefficiency.
- Evaluation of how meetings are utilized is key in this area. Each person in the meeting is receiving the information being conveyed by the person speaking. Is the information relevant to each recipient? While it’s not possible to always have all information conveyed in a meeting be relevant to every person attending, reducing irrelevant communication is important to long-term organizational efficiency and morale.
Effective business communication is hard work…and worth all the effort.