Friday, July 29, 2011

What Are You Saying? - Communication and the Need to Speak the Same Language in the Workplace

Having just come back from the AALL 2011 conference, I can't help but think about all the sessions that started off by defining the terminology and concepts being discussed. Kathie Sullivan and I did the same in our session on collaboration tools, explaining what sense of collaboration we were talking about.

Here are a few things I have been thinking about lately with communication and learning to speak the same language in the workplace:

1. It is important for senior managers to get an accurate vision out to staff.

This means a few things:
  • Make sure everyone is using the terminology in the same way. There are different ways to collaborate; are you talking about the same thing? Are you talking just about co-ordinating with one another, or actually creating something together so that the individual contributions (and contributors) will not be distinguishable in the final work product?
  • How will this collaboration happen? Who will lead? What are the ground rules?
  • If you want to see something "innovative", what do you mean by "innovative"? 
  • What is your risk tolerance and how open will this process be?
All of these things need consideration before people magically work together to make your vision a reality.

2. It is important for senior managers to communicate the vision directly to staff.

I see "broken telephone" taking place inside organizations: with communication being handed down from VP or Managing Partner to CIO to Director to Manager to staff. By the time it is handed down through the ranks, and questions meant to clarify go back up through the chain of command, everyone has a different picture in mind and is doing something different. How inefficient!

If holding a group meeting or a group call is too difficult, what about the senior officer with the vision putting the communication into a podcast episode for internal staff to listen to? Or have it video taped and post on your intranet or portal? And allow staff to submit questions in a way that everyone can see the answers to help with the understanding. Of course, ideally the senior person will speak to each individual on the project to ensure they are on side and on track. A periodic call around on important projects would be well worth the time spent.

3. If you are working on a project and are working from directions handed down through various chains of command, it is worth going directly to the source to ensure you understand what is being asked of you.

This was a rule of thumb when I was a reference librarian: if instructions on complex research had been handed down via an assistant or a junior, it is possible something was inadvertently missed during the transmission. It was always better to go directly to the person giving the research request directly to ensure the work was being done correctly and in the most efficient way possible. It was also an opportunity to ask questions and clarify.

4. Keep in mind culture and cultural differences.

If you are assigning work to someone or accepting work from someone with whom you are not familiar, keep in mind that the way in which you communicate may play a role at the outset. Emailing back and forth with people from different countries and of different cultures lately, I notice that in North America our communications tend to be direct and informal. Those in or from other countries may be less direct and more formal.

Think about how your communication may be received by the other person. Will you be seen as too formal? Will you be seen as too kurt and therefore rude? Speaking first by telephone may help alleviate some of this tension.

5. Are you using bad email habits to communicate?

Emailing in ineffective ways may mean that you are confusing others, and slowing down the process. Again, think about how you are communicating and what is most effective.

I love reading tips from my friend Bruce Mayhew since he has some great advice on how to communicate with email. I highly recommend his Email Etiquette blog posts. I have taken Bruce's email workshop and found it invaluable in communicating more effectively via email, and identified a few of my own bad habits of which I was previously unaware.

Your thoughts?

What kinds of communication breakdowns have you seen within organizations or teams? What would you recommend as a remedy? I look forward to hearing your ideas!

1 comment:

Connie Crosby said...

A comment came in via LinkedIn: "I always get a kick when managers spend more time explaining 'vision' than it takes to do the work."

My response: Apparently I did not explain "vision" very well (I should take my own advice!!!)

I am using the term for "description of the project." I'm not talking about an exercise to determine an organization's vision statement and its ilk. Although I do see merit in strategic work thinking about the underlying purpose of a project.