Want to lower anxiety at work? Avoid these 3 popular communication practices

by | May 11, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

Hey! This is an invitation to review three popular workplace communication practices that are bad for your brain: hey hanging, bumping up, and splaying.

These practices can instill fear and anxiety in message receivers, making them feel unsafe. And feeling unsafe means having trouble concentrating, thinking clearly, remembering, and being open to new ideas.

Two practices—hey hanging and splaying—also add more uncertainty to one’s and life, which the brain also dislikes. Depending on one’s discomfort with uncertainty, this can lead to unproductive swirling. For instance, to reduce your levels of ambiguity and stress, you can seek more information. That may give you a greater sense of control but with higher levels of annoyance, especially if you’re irritated with getting behind schedule due to spending time on info gathering.

So if you use these popular work communication practices, please reconsider. Here’s why.

1.Hey hanging. The single word “Hey,” “Hi” or the extra “Hi there” arrives via Slack, Microsoft Teams or Google Chat, and sometimes as a text. The sender often holds a more powerful position than the receiver, such as a boss, project manager, or an individual who can dangle a shiny new exciting project in front of a prospective worker bee.

Why it’s bad: Without any other information or context, the brain’s automatic response when receiving a single ambiguous word is to fear the worst. A round of layoffs. A work mistake. A budget shortfall. Or, if you don’t feel doom and gloom, you may sense that you’re about to be tricked into being asked to do something new for which you have no time or interest. (For more about hey hanging, check out the Wall Street Journal article The New Most Dreaded Word at Work: ‘Hey’ )

What to do instead: If you’re the sender, include your point rather than state the stand-alone “Hey.” By including the topic—and the timing too, especially for time sensitive requests—you give the receiver context. This additional information places them in a better frame of mind and can even reduce their anxiety. As for receivers of a single “Hey,” try messaging back: “Topic?”  

2. Bumping up. This practice serves to act as a gentle, helpful reminder. The new email typically means “I’m bringing this to the top of your inbox because I know you have a lot going on and I don’t want you to have to rummage through all of your email messages to find this one from me.” Some consider this technique a polite way to get your attention. And then they remind you what you owe them, such as a response, action item, or other follow up request.

Why it’s bad: These “bumping up” emails contribute to digital information pollution. As a sender, you’re dispatching yet another email that looks like all the others—especially if it’s just a resend—without adding any new content, context or a personalized, caring message. And if the receiver even sees the bumped-up message, their reaction may be a combination of guilt, shame, annoyance, or some other negative feeling.

What to do instead: As the sender, convey a personalized message using a different channel that the receiver likes. For example, check-in to see how they’re doing. Remind them that the deadline is approaching and ask if they need anything. Provide a new tidbit about the project. Or even share something random that might bring a smile to their face letting them know that you care and look forward to hearing from them. The point is to show your humanity and connect with them.

3. Splaying. This technique is all about spreading and scattering messages in multiple places, such as Slack and Team channels, email, text, LinkedIn (why not?), voice mail, audio messages, video, special recognition websites, other message boards and microsites, and even buried in documents. Splaying—my term—has become popular because of the extensive number of channels to choose from for communicating with team members.

Why it’s bad: When you’re on the receiving end, the information can appear to taste or feel like breadcrumbs (or breadcrumbing) at work. You get little bits that seem disjointed or unavailable, especially if you have to search to find them again. So many of us scan our messages quickly, not paying full attention because we live our lives in a state of continuous partial attention—that is, paying attention to multiple things at once. We may know we’ve seen something about this, but we can’t quite remember where or when. So we waste a lot of time hunting for information that we think we need to do our job or whatever. And even senders of messages can get tripped up if they want to confirm something they sent and can’t easily remember what channel they used.

What to do instead: Help yourself, your team members, and everyone’s brain by taking time to agree which channels you’ll use. For instance, some channels may be better for certain projects, types of information, or for broader distribution, such as when you’re communicating with external clients, customers, suppliers, and others. Also, decide on which channels to use for urgent messages and emergencies. And if the agreed-upon process doesn’t work smoothly, make sure team leaders and members feel comfortable speaking up and suggesting changes.

Keep in mind instant messaging at work is still relatively new. So are all the communication channels now available. (And just because you have multiple channels doesn’t mean you have to use all of them all of the time.) We’re already using IM a lot. The WSJ hey-hanging article reported that Microsoft says its heaviest users now send and receive about 150 IM chats a day—gaining on the more than 250 emails a day they receive.

Work is challenging enough without having your everyday communication practices contribute to higher degrees of fear and anxiety. Avoid the dark side. Instead, try to make your communication check-ins and requests be the bright spots in your colleagues workday.


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