Why is no one talking to me?​

Three SCNetwork members discuss Mary Donohue’s recent presentation on variance
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/13/2019

Note: This commentary is in response to the following article: If communication is a problem, close the variance

Sandi Channing: In-person meetings, video chats, Skype, email, text, instant messaging, phone calls, FaceTime, Twitter — there are so many ways to communicate these days. But ask different generations which one is more effective and there’s no consensus. That each generation prefers to communicate in different ways is not new, but there were good nuggets of info in Mary Donohue’s presentation.

I liked how she linked team communications to management consultant Edward Deming’s Total Quality Control Management. In essence, it’s about reducing variance so teams trust and engage more, which then leads to increased productivity, helping people to meet their goals.

Reducing “inputs that are slowing killing us with the tip-tap of the keyboard” is a necessity.

How many of us communicate with our teams and co-workers in the way we are most comfortable, not recognizing their preferred method of communications — causing frustration for all?

Companies that understand the impact communications has on engagement and productivity will get ahead. Increasing employees’ knowledge of other’s communication preferences, and achieving a level of mutual respect, reduces the variance and increase the effectiveness of teams.

As with all elements of diversity, the importance of respecting and valuing differences is paramount.

To help with this, Donohue provided a web-based quiz for teams to increase their understanding of the styles and preferences of themselves and their team members. Self-data, team data and collaboration — it’s clean, lean and easy.

The changes each generation has brought to the workforce are a plus. While some of the “old-school” methodologies will disappear, the more effective ones will survive.

Smart employees will embrace the differences, recognizing the benefits of a varied communication tools. As Deming understood so well: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

Paul Pittman: This was a fascinating discussion, especially when you think we were looking at examples of communication amongst essentially a homogenous group and their different preferences for delivery.

Compound that with the language we use to deliver messages, the shortcuts and codes we use, and how clarity or purpose can be obscured by our preference for the medium and its content.

As an immigrant to Canada many years ago, it took me a while (and in fact I am still trying) to stop using expressions I learned as a child in North London that don’t translate into North America, even though we speak (more or less) the same language.

As another example, a team of nine I supervised in Switzerland worked out that we had 13 difference languages in the group and for several of them, English — the language of the company — was their third or fourth language.

We learned that as we moved initiatives forward, written exchanges — particularly short-form emails — were not efficient. Recipients would telephone or drop by to seek clarity over a word or phrase.

We discovered that our preferred method to communicate was verbal: To meet, discuss the plan and then at the end of every meeting, quickly go around the room and ask each member if they understood what they had agreed to.

It was not only the literal but figurative meanings that got ironed out in these recap sessions.

A lawyer colleague of mine has a client who insists on providing instructions via text message. Perhaps this is intentional as no record can be digitally transferred to file. My colleague therefore is forced to take a screenshot of the message and file that. In this case, the recipient’s preference (and legal rationale) is not the medium preferred by the deliverer. But, over time, haste, urgency and volume may cause one of those instructions to not make it into the chain — possibly with dire consequences.

Donohue’s message was clear: The medium is important. And I would add so too are content and context. Provide a recipient with clarity, using the preferred method, but also perspective — this is particularly important in modern business where process chains are long and little discretion is expected. Play your part in the chain, but without variation.

How a message is delivered — the means, the language, the content and the context — is an important consideration for the efficiency and effectiveness of the way we work. We should look to those roles where these considerations are a matter of life and death; for example, first responders and surgeons have already figured this out.

Jan van der Hoop: Paul, I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of content and context. One critical component of context that is totally lost in electronic communication is body language — the non-verbals that speak volumes about the message, its true (intended?) meaning, and the sender’s underlying intentions, feelings and motivations.

But body language also has very different cultural connotations. In many cultures, eye contact is frowned upon as disrespectful; in others, it’s a sign of engagement and trustworthiness. Some cultures prefer veiled, indirect communication while others value people getting straight to the unvarnished point.

So, we must be mindful of the meaning we assign to body language, and have the presence of mind to recognize we have made an assumption and check in with the other person to see if the assumption is valid.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some managers over the years who are exceptionally good at “listening” to body language — the tone and pace of what’s said, posture, eye movement, hesitation, even what’s not said — and checking in. It can be as simple as “I’m sensing X from you… What’s up?”

Sometimes they’d be right, sometimes they’d have misread it; either way, it has the benefit of dialing in to get a deeper sense of what’s going on, beyond the words. Sometimes, they’d put their finger on something absolutely true, which I was oblivious to. It was a powerful tool to improve communication and trust.

We assume an awful lot over the course of a day — what someone really means, what their agenda is, what they are trying to get out of us or a situation. And the truth is most of our assumptions are wrong — fabrications of our own filters, beliefs and prejudices.

If only we could build the habit of listening fully and without bias to words and context.

Once we understand that, the medium is less important and less prone to error.

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