What the *%&?! did that mean?

Author's avatar Management Dec 10, 2015 6 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    It always amazes me when people haven’t heard Mehrabian’s stat that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Now, granted, the statistic has been rightfully challenged over time, but I’m still a firm believer that nonverbal communication holds a huge, gaping, “can’t even see the 2nd place runner” majority over literal words. Very little of what you actually say or write conveys meaning; it’s all in HOW you present it. I think a lot of managers realize this, but it’s still so easy to ignore when e-mail, texting and whole-company meetings are often the most expedient ways to communicate.

    It takes a ton of work to think about the best way to present things. Sometimes it sucks to even think about it because it feels like it slows us down, and who has time for that? Yet by only using the most expedient methods of communication, we ultimately avoid the very people we aim to communicate with. No matter how good our intentions are, in the end that makes us really crappy managers.

    In my nearly 20 years of work experience, I’ve repeatedly seen managers end up communicating something very different than what they intended, based solely on HOW the message was presented. Here are some examples:

    A company-wide policy that represents a significant departure from how things are traditionally done is communicated via an all-company meeting with no option for employees to ask or respond to questions.

    The rationale: “We’ll communicate this in the most efficient way to get information to a large group of people, and make sure we keep it succinct so we don’t derail people from their workday.”

    The unintended reaction: “Management didn’t even consider or care about the impact this would have on us or care about our reactions. Man, I can’t wait to get the outta here.”

    An executive reaches out only when they need something; but never follows up to requests sent to them. And as an added bonus, all of the exec’s requests are made via email.

    The rationale: “I want to communicate quickly and only when necessary”

    The unintended reaction: “I’m another cog in the wheel – not worthy of a response, acknowledgement, or feedback. Why should I go the extra mile for my company?”

    A manager tackles a really sensitive issue only via spontaneous phone call, rather than setting aside time for a face-to-face discussion.

    The rationale: “This can’t wait. I need to get this information to this person right away. Hey, at least a phone call is more personal than email.”

    The unintended reaction: “What the $*%?!?! Seriously – you’re springing this on me now? How do you think I’m going to react? I’m just going to say “ok” until you hang up the phone and then I’ll have a glass of wine. Or three.”

    The thing is, no one is perfect at communication all of the time, or even most of the time. However, there are certain things we can do to enhance our communication to create shared understanding of what’s going on with our employees and avoid some of the WTF scenarios. To that end, here are a few tips I’ve embraced over the years.

    Double up on delivery

    Always send important messages using at least 2 channels of communication, only one of which can be in writing. Never assume people have the same learning styles. Some people take info in more easily by listening, some others do so by reading, and others need a discussion. So when attempting to communicate to a group, engage at least 2 different modes of communication to bridge the gap between verbal and nonverbal communication. For instance: when enacting a big policy change, send an initial email outlining what’s coming and why and then invite employees to a meeting where they can listen to an in-person explanation and ask questions. By providing two versions of the same information – including one that’s interactive – you will avoid a lot of confusion and ultimately get better buy-in from employees than when relying on email alone. And just a note that we all tend to forget: Email lacks nonverbal cues and context, so never try to tackle a sensitive topic via email without first bringing it up in person.

    Check yo’self

    When communicating difficult information to a group, first assess your state of mind. Difficult conversations almost universally involve some sort of bad news – your numbers are down, your team made a huge mistake, the quarterly results are abysmal. Bad news almost always elicits a negative emotional reaction, particularly when you care deeply concerned about the success of your company. But you have to step back and think about how your state of mind is influencing your communication. Paul Kenny connects various states of mind with a typical pattern of behavior attached to it. For instance, If you go into a difficult conversation with an abundance of anxiety, you’ll unintentionally wind up issuing what may be empty assurances to try and mitigate that anxiety. But if you go in with a sense of balance, you’ll be seen as a steward who can lead others through a tough time. If you can’t go in with a positive state of mind, be prepared for the consequences of how that will affect others’ interpretation of what you’re “really” saying.

    A little goes a long way

    Acknowledgement is the key to motivation. In one of my MBA classes, we read this great little book that sums up why acknowledgement is so incredibly important for high-performing teams: they rely on positive feedback, recognition, and reward for motivation. So many times people take this to mean bonuses, raises, and so on – and they ignore everyday acknowledgement or feedback. It’s your job as a leader to communicate with your folks in a way that makes them feel empowered and appreciated, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that only communicating out when you need something is not the way to do it. When your team does something great, make sure to acknowledge it. Putting this in email makes the praise “official.” It also gives them a record of their good work, which is useful come review or promotion time. But make sure you also deliver the praise face-to-face. Your body language and tone of voice will go a long way in conveying sincere acknowledgement.

    In the end, you just can’t rely on written communication to get your message across. When in doubt, talk it out (as corny as that sounds). Honestly, you can’t even just rely on a live group presentation. In the immortal words of Vanilla Ice, you have to stop, collaborate with, and listen to your employees in order to avoid unnecessary WTF moments, and create the best sense of shared understanding and intention.

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    Victoria Lefevers

    is a competitive intelligence pro with a passion for building communities of knowledge. By day, she leads competitive intel for Carbonite in Boston. By night, she can be found sipping a nice pinot noir while reading something incredibly nerdy.

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