Are you doing workplace communication wrong?

Communication. It’s possibly the most underwhelming word in the dictionary. Humanity’s crowning achievement, the evolutionary advantage that has catapulted us as a species above all others, distilled into one banal, and ironically misunderstood, corporate catch-all. Seriously, just browse the hallowed digital archives of the Harvard Business Review - there are over 6000 articles tagged with communication. '3 Situations Where Cross-Cultural Communications Breaks Down', 'Get Your Message Across to a Skeptical Audience', 'Figure Out Your Managers Communications Style'. Sure - no problem.

The evolution of communication

We are literally walking, talking social computers. Humans have the highest brain to overall weight ratio of any animal. It evolved this way for one reason only: to handle complex social interaction. You’d think we’d have it nailed by now. Not a chance.

For millions of years, humans hung out in small groups, reaching out from time to time to other groups for trade. Our brains developed accordingly, learning to cope with groups as large as 150 people.

Fast forward a few thousand years. How many people do you know? How many people have you met over your lifetime? Unlike silicon CPUs, our wonderful social computers don’t follow Moore’s law. Even today, the ideal group size is about 150. For example, the basic fighting unit of a modern army is the company, which consists of about 130-150 soldiers.

So how can a company like Walmart effectively manage 2.1 million people? And how are you and I supposed to navigate such a complicated organism? In both cases, we rely on technology.

Software replaces methodology

The most powerful technologies in the 20th Century were methodologies. Take management by objectives, created by management guru Peter Drucker (who, coincidentally, coined the term 'knowledge worker' in 1959). Bill Packard, founder of Hewlett-Packard went as far to say 'No operating policy has contributed more to Hewlett-Packard's success'.

But in the 21st Century, the technology that hold the most promise is software. And it’s not really surprising that many software companies are trying to solve communications problems.

Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Slack, Facetime, iMessage, Yammer, and my own company, Hiri are attempting to change how we communicate. Although most of these tools started out as consumer products, they are slowly crossing over into the enterprise. For example, Facebook has introduced Facebook at Work and Whatsapp now allows businesses to create accounts.

It’s going to take some time to weed out the winners and losers. In the meantime, companies are torn - new tools are risky, but nobody wants to miss the boat. We need something like Drucker’s MBOs to help us make sense of it all.

The Rich/Lean model

One lens you can look at this landscape through is the Rich/Lean model. The concept is simple. Some channels are better than others for certain types of communication. In this case a channel is the tool we use to communicate - meetings, video calls, phone calls, chat or IM, social, email or SMS. Choosing the right channel is mostly common sense. But that’s the thing about common sense - it can be quite uncommon. We frown when people break up with someone by text. In social circles this is considered tacky, but professionally, it's unconscionable. Yet that’s exactly what PwC did for one UK-based insurance company.

In one company we’ve dealt with, employees are not allowed to use email to send anything that might be deemed contentious. Instead, the company suggests that employees pick up the phone or drop by their desk. This makes sense. We’ve all received emails where we’ve been unsure of the tone. And we don’t always sympathise with someone we don’t know. Did you feel sympathy for the bad guys in Top Gun when they were blasted out of the sky? The director very astutely had their visors blacked out so we couldn’t see their faces.

If the channel we choose says something about the message, then we need to ensure that those channels are available. Many companies don’t provide enough tools to cover the spectrum. For example, you’d think that most companies use some sort of chat/IM tool at this stage, but it’s not the case. Just ask Slack, the current darlings of silicon valley who built a brand new chat application. Founder Stewart Butterfield said 'when you ask businesses what they use, 80% say nothing while 20% say something in [our] category'.

Once you have the tools in place, it’s important that people understand how they should be used. This is the hard part. Have a read of emailcharter.org. They describe the problem as a 'tragedy of the commons' - if we don’t have a common understanding of how email should be used, then we are all going to use it differently. This causes miscommunication. For example, if we all understood that emails shouldn’t be responded to immediately, we wouldn’t send urgent communications via email, where our recipients may not see them until it’s too late.

Again, this sounds like common sense. But even the big guys can get it wrong. Remember Google Wave? Google Wave combined aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, web chat, and social networking. It was slated to be the next big thing from Google, riding high on the success of Gmail. Instead, it tanked. And you can probably guess why. If the channel you choose affects the message, what happens if you don’t understand the channel? Will the recipient see this as an email? A chat? A text message? Will they get the message instantly, later today, or next week? Users couldn’t find the answers, and Google Wave headed to the dead pool.

Good communicators

Of course, it’s still down to the sender to act responsibly. Once you’ve given them the tools, you need to educate them. Start by making them more aware of their communications style with a simple framework.

Is the information you want to send:

  • Clear?
  • Useful?
  • Accurate?

Encoding the message:

  • Try to turn your thoughts and ideas into a clear message
  • How well you know your audience?
  • Can you anticipate confusion?

Choose the right channel based on:

  • High/low ambiguity?
  • Priority?
  • Time sensitive?
  • Emotional content?
  • Distribution (team? company?)
  • Familiarity with the recipient?

Decoding:

  • Read messages carefully
  • Actively listen
  • Interpret content back to thought
  • Remember, decoding errors leads to misinterpretation

Think about the recipient:

  • They have preconceived ideas about you, your department, and your company
  • Be mindful of their current environment
  • Consider the reaction you want

The payoff

Communication is a competitive advantage. The Organizational Communication Research Center (OCRC) was setup to improve engagement with employees and improve communications. They’ve collected some pretty impressive research. One study in 2004 found 'a significant improvement in communication effectiveness in organizations was linked to a 29.5 percent rise in market value'. And if that’s not enough, 'more than 80 percent of employees polled in the US and UK said that employee communication influences their desire to stay with or leave an organization. Nearly a third said communication was a “big influence” on their decision'.

Ignore at your own peril.

Kevin Kavanagh, CEO and co-founder of Hiri