In the previous episode I talked about some common reasons for conflict, and I said that poor communication is technically the main reason why conflict occurs. Communication in general is the transfer of information, so poor communication, or miscommunication, is the failure to adequately communicate, to adequately transfer information.
When people hear that, they probably think “Oh, miscommunication is when someone doesn’t express their ideas well.” Like the absent-minded professor who is brilliant but just can’t stay on topic during a lecture, or the nervous intern whose anxiety is making them stumble over their words during an important presentation.
But that’s only half of the equation, only considering the giver of an idea. The other half of communication, and therefore miscommunication, is the recipient, the person who is receiving the idea.
Because remember, communication is always a two-way street. There’s the person expressing an idea, and there’s the person seeing or hearing that idea. It can be an in-person meeting between two people, an organization-wide email sent out by the CEO, or even two groups of people just sitting and staring at each other silently. Whether verbally, in text, or nonverbally, we’re almost always expressing something, transferring information, and people are always receiving and trying to make sense of that information.
So just as communication is a constant cycle of giving and receiving information, miscommunication occurs when there’s a breakdown in that cycle. This may seem like a minor thing to talk about, like “Well, yeah, miscommunication happens, so what?” The so what is that some analyses have estimated that miscommunication can cost smaller companies hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and upwards of tens of millions of dollars annually for much larger organizations. That’s a huge impact on the bottom line. And even beyond money, miscommunication can cause conflict, like I talked about in the previous episode, it can hurt feelings, reduce trust, result in a lot of wasted time and effort, and much more.
To explore miscommunication, we at Quantum Workplace conducted research that included feedback from more than 1300 employees across the United States. In this episode I’ll be going over two high-level themes from that research. First is the mishap of thinking that miscommunication isn’t because of me, it’s because of other people. Second is the mishap of miscommunication during 1-on-1 performance conversations.
Miscommunication is a fact of life. You heard someone wrong, you think a hand gesture meant this but it really meant that, you use a word that means one thing to you but something completely different to someone else. It happens all the time. And our research largely supports that because we found that about 80 percent of respondents, 4 out of 5 people, believe miscommunication occurs in their organizations occasionally, frequently, or very frequently. So the vast majority of employees believe that miscommunication does happen at their places of work.
Survey-takers were also asked to indicate how often they themselves were directly involved in workplace miscommunication. Take a guess at how many people indicated that they themselves rarely, almost never, or never are directly involved in workplace miscommunication. And remember that 80 percent of these same employees are well aware that miscommunication happens in their organizations.
The answer is…half. Fifty percent of respondents. That to me is absolutely incredible. Employees know miscommunication happens across their workplace, but half of them don’t really think they are part of the problem. In other words, when it comes to miscommunication, they’re thinking “It’s not me; it’s you.”
One question you might have is…why don’t people see themselves as part of the problem? Well, people are inclined to believe “it’s not me, it’s you” because of what’s called self-serving bias and defensive attribution. The self-serving bias is a tendency for people to change and distort their perceptions to maintain, or potentially enhance, their self-worth, how they view their own value. People often want to have a favorable view of themselves, so distancing themselves from a problem — such as miscommunication at work — allows them to reason that they’re not to blame: other people are. And defensive attribution is the self-serving bias in action. In other words, if a problem emerges, then blame can be attributed to, given to, other sources like coworkers, another position level, leadership, so as to defend one’s sense of self-worth.
This also leads to people thinking that because others are the problem, then others are the ones who have to get better at expressing their ideas or understanding what I’m saying, and I don’t have to put any effort into growing, meeting them halfway, or anything like that. The onus of responsibility of becoming a better communicator is on other people, not me.
So how do you overcome this, as a manager? When communicating with others, make sure you are clear, direct, and transparent. If the communication is verbal or face-to-face, watch for looks of confusion in others, how often people ask for clarification on what you said, or even someone responding to your statements and they completely misinterpreted what you meant. Clarity is important to minimize miscommunication, but then as soon as you notice a message isn’t getting through in the way you meant it to, act immediately to clarify and re-direct toward your original intention. But in those instances, don’t blame others for misinterpreting you, put them down, make them feel stupid, or anything like that. How you deal with miscommunication is just as important as trying to minimize it in the first place.
If you’re communicating through text like an email, avoid vague questions, directions, or commands. I mean, that’s true for verbal communication as well, but with email you don’t have immediate feedback to quickly re-direct the miscommunication. The more vague or cryptic you are, the more uncertain others will be when reading your message. This is especially important in jobs that frequently interact with clients and customers because a 10-second, vague email from you could mean hours of wasted time and effort for your direct report that could ultimately hurt both the employees’ perceptions of you but also the customers’ perceptions of your business. Which again is partially why miscommunication costs hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars annually within businesses.
The main takeaway from this first topic is that, to the best of your ability as a manager, own miscommunication within your team. It’s not entirely on you because some of your direct reports may simply be really poor communicators, and they may need one-on-one communication coaching. But as a whole, within your team, avoid automatically thinking that miscommunication is other peoples’ problems and not yours. Reducing miscommunication is certainly a group effort, but as the head of a team, you should steer the direction your team takes in clear, direct communication.
In the very first episode of this podcast I explored continuous conversations, which are generally monthly or quarterly one-on-one meetings you have with your direct reports to talk about goals, obstacles, opportunities, and decisions. You can think about this section as a continuation of that episode.
Before jumping into results about one-on-ones, I want to review a result that shows the importance of your role as a manager in the cycle of miscommunication. We asked survey-takers who they believe are most responsible for reducing miscommunication in the workplace. Over half of respondents indicated that all employees are responsible. This is awesome. It shows an increasing kind of democratization of ownership and accountability, that everyone in an organization should take responsibility for their actions and those around them when possible. However, almost one-third of respondents indicated that supervisors and managers are most responsible in reducing workplace miscommunication. This suggests that a large portion of employees believe that the burden of responsibility falls on your shoulders, as a manager. Like you don’t already have enough responsibility, right?
The best place to start thinking about that miscommunication responsibility is at an individual basis, or in this case, one-on-ones. In our research, we asked survey-takers to indicate the most frequent source of miscommunication they noticed when having one-on-one performance conversations with their immediate manager. What do you think those are, those sources of miscommunication? Take a few moments to think about recent examples of miscommunication you’ve had with your coworkers or direct reports, and what perhaps caused that miscommunication.
Now that you’ve thought about your own experiences, compare those to the top three sources of miscommunication in our study, which were: (1) not feeling that what employees had to say would be heard or listened to by their manager, (2) clear developmental goals not being set, and (3) employees and their managers having different priorities. Let’s break down each one.
The main source of miscommunication is fundamentally about voice. Do your team members feel like their ideas, input, and feedback are valued? If not, it can discourage them from thinking outside the box or sharing ideas for improvement. They just shut up, fall in line, and learn to only listen and never speak up, which is very unhealthy.
We also found that employees who stated that not feeling that what they say will be heard or listened to are also the least engaged employees. So employees are much more engaged if they feel they have a voice, knowing that their voice matters when talking with their managers, with you.
To ensure your team members have a voice during one-on-ones, you can do a few things. One is to share your agendas ahead of one-on-ones. This gives each person time to prepare and keeps surprises out of the conversation. It’s those surprises that often make people so nervous and anxious about anything related to a performance review or one-on-one conversation with their manager.
You can also ask for feedback about yourself from your team member. This can shift things a bit, allowing you to show and feel a sense of vulnerability and openness that’s typically only reserved for direct reports. Likewise, let your employee share their insights on a topic first, then summarize what you heard to reduce miscommunication. Finally, follow-up. Follow-up on any outstanding topics or questions your team member had. Be sure to acknowledge any concerns they may have had or challenges they are facing.
Besides voice, the other two top sources of miscommunication were clear developmental goals not being set, and employees and their managers having different priorities. These two come down to alignment. Are you aligned with your team members? Do you know what their developmental or career goals are, what they’re interested in? Which goals are more important, or take higher priority? Likewise, do your team members’ goals conflict with what you have in mind, and is what’s more important to them less important to you? All of those are critical questions to know about your team.
The main takeaway from this second topic is that during one-on-ones with your team members, you need to ensure they feel like they have a voice, that they can voice their opinions. Likewise you should ensure a sense of alignment, that you’re both on the same page about goals and priorities.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the mishap of thinking that miscommunication is essentially other peoples’ fault, and what you can do to possibly reverse that trend. I also discussed the top three miscommunication mishaps that occur most frequently during one-on-one performance conversations.
If you’re interested in learning more about our miscommunication research, check out our e-book titled The State of Miscommunication. It covers other topics like the role of technology in miscommunication, creating a voice-empowered culture, and more.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss meetings.