Dial “M” for miscommunication

by | Jul 16, 2012 | Blog | 0 comments

How many ways can colleagues irritate you?

Let us count……

On second thought, let’s not. If you start thinking unpleasant thoughts, your brain may get high-jacked and want to dash to the dark side.

Instead, suffice it to say that electronic mismatches around communication could be climbing to the top of your list of annoyances. Your anxiety may be rising if teammates insist on communicating with you in an incompatible manner, regardless of whether you work in an office or you telecommute.

What do these mismatches look like? You may get texts when you want to talk on the phone. You get flooded with emails when one or two would do. You have a line of people at your door wanting to talk when you’re running to a meeting or racing to catch a train. You had no clue because they didn’t schedule time with you or signal in another way that they wanted to talk.

Rather than live with this type of stress, take action.

Set ground rules. Know how to be “e-compatible” about electronic (as well as other communication modes) as the Wall Street Journal dubbed it in He Texts, She Tweets—Are They E-Compatible? The article only addressed friends and family, not co-workers.

Communication channels are lightning rods at work, not just at home, especially with the explosion of choices. Even worse, in my experience, people don’t often realize that communication incompatibility can be a blister that erupts into a major sore if gone untreated.

People assume that their preferred method is everyone’s favorite. They do what’s easiest for them. And they think the problem is the other person or something else.

Yet, the constant chaffing of mismatched communication choices may rub everyone the wrong way so that productivity and performance suffer. This is especially dangerous when the team is already working on challenging change issues. People start paying just partial attention to what others are communicating, they ignore messages or they get so exasperated that they turn off IM or texting or discount the individuals who use misaligned methods.

For several years now, I’ve advised the project teams, as well as departments, I work with to be explicit with each other about their personal communication preferences. By having an open discussion about their favorite ways of communicating, team members get to know one another better as well as set expectations with each other. This discussion also makes it easier to revisit the topic—and other somewhat uncomfortable issues too—when problems surface. As a result, you can tame the Silent, Sugarcoated Moose®.

So what do ground rules look like?

  • Have everyone on the project or work team articulate their first and second choice of communication preference so everyone knows the best way to reach them.
  • Ask everyone to try to accommodate each other’s preference where practical when initiating a communication. (For a virtual team, it will be difficult if not impossible to talk with people in person.)
  • Agree on where to send or post project/team updates to make them easy to access and find.
  • Decide on email protocol regarding the use of “reply all”; subject lines (Action Needed: Question: Urgent: Information Only); abbreviations such as EOM (end of message) or NRN (no reply necessary); and acknowledgements (such as “Thank you” and “Got it”).
  • Commit to the speed of response, especially when a team member is sending messages outside of the recipients’ usual work hours or over the weekend. (Just because one team member likes to catch up on team communication over the weekend doesn’t necessarily mean others need to respond immediately. The team should set standards that fit the situation, the organization culture and if possible, their personal preferences too.)
  • Clarify who likes unscheduled calls and visits and who wants everything scheduled.
  • Pledge that everyone will refrain from escalating emails on sensitive issues. After three volleys, someone needs to pick up the phone or their feet to talk in real time (or schedule talk time).

These communication ground rules encourage respect among team members. These ground rules also help people recognize that they may need to flex to work well with others as they follow through on their tasks. And at the same time, the rules let them draw boundaries to protect their time, their powers of concentration and their personal lives.

What do you think? Don’t call me. (The phone is my least favorite channel.) Instead email me or even better, comment here.


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