"Now, explain it to me like I'm a four-year-old."*
- Joe Miller, "Philadelphia", 1993.
That was the memorable line, declared with notable flourish, by John Miller, during that courtroom scene in the movie "Philadelphia", released in 1993. You may recall that Miller was played by the veteran Oscar-awarded actor, Denzel Washington. I am sure that Twitter buffs would approve of the short, powerful headline, (91 characters in total), which helped to convince the jury to decide in favour of Andrew Beckett, Miller's client, whose character was played by Tom Hanks, another Oscar winner. Recall again that during the deliberations behind closed doors, one juror echoed Miller's line, almost verbatim. Ah, the power of effective communications...
The term seems simple enough on the surface. Surely communicating is as easy as speaking, or as obvious as writing down instructions, rules, memos etc? It should not be that difficult. As it turns out, it is really difficult to effectively communicate, especially at the workplace.
This is because of what I have often referred to as the 'human element'. The workplace is awash with people with different personalities, backgrounds, cultural differences and ideologies. One is often dealing with people in situations where there is incomplete information, limited time, or both. This makes communication very difficult, and if not handled properly, poor communications, as research in organisational behaviour has suggested, unfortunately open the doors to all sorts of inter-personal conflicts in terms of negative attitudes and behaviours, leading to reduced productivity, or at the very least, a drop in morale. So in essence, it is both good sense and good business sense to get communications right.
There are evidently three types of communications: the written, the oral and body language cues.
However, what is often not realised, and this is the most common mistake at the workplace, is that oral and written communication are used the same way. They shouldn't. The language employed in all oral communications should be different from the more formal, written style, even if the context remains the same. When tensions are high or relationships are strained, oral communications might be more accommodating, given that one's speech could be modified when observing the body language of the other party.
Let us imagine a simple scenario whereby an oral statement is spoken in a low, controlled register:
"I am concerned about the delays in the project. I think that we should address these concerns in a meeting at X period".
This statement is likely to be considered as a practical, reasonable request and should ease the flow of discussion at the suggested time.
By contrast, a written memo stated in an almost staccato tone, such as the one below, may immediately convey an accusatory air, making the recipient defensive and guarded even before the issue is addressed:
"Delays in the project delivery would need to be addressed in the meeting billed for X period".
In the second scenario, unless the person requesting the meeting is in a position of high authority such as that of a director, CMO/CEO, emotions such as anger, annoyance, or disinterest might simmer beneath the surface during the meeting, thereby rendering it unproductive. This is usually the case if the parties involved are close in ‘rank’ or influence.
While there are obviously circumstances whereby one type of communication must be used in place of the other, (such as press releases for specific purposes, communications in times of crises/scandals and other official scenarios), it is useful to know just how to communicate at the workplace. It is also useful to note that in general, communications should be about speaking, listening, reading and deciphering - to both physical and non-physical cues - as well as to what is said and what is not being said.
I believe that effective communications are both an art, (they could be creative, adaptive and flexible); and a science, (they could be procedural, precise and methodical); depending on the purpose of the communications, the target audience and the circumstances surrounding the communications. As with most things, regular practice makes perfect.
However, below are 6 tips of what not to do at the workplace regarding communications:
1) Do not assume that your target audience understands industry-specific jargon
This should hold true even if one is giving a presentation to industry experts, professionals in the field or to Management.
Simplicity is key.
While one might not be able to avoid using certain terms, there is great merit in simplifying communications for ease of flow and for a more thorough engagement from the audience.
At the workplace, if you also consider the possibility of having to conduct a presentation to a cross-functional group involving, for instance, colleagues from human resources, the legal division and operations, then you would appreciate the importance of simplifying and clarifying communications. Whatever the circumstances, keeping communications simple is crucial to delivering the greatest impact. With the exception of a few cases, such as for leisure or entertainment, people generally have short attention spans. So do not waffle on.
2) Do not engage in oral outbursts
This is a common faux pas at the workplace and both employees and managers are guilty of this unacceptable tirade.
When stress levels rise, so do tempers. A simple 'disagreement' between colleagues soon degenerates into an oral outburst, complete with personal jabs or insults and may even lead to a physical altercation. At such a point, there is a complete breakdown in communication; nothing gets resolved and there is a real possibility of lingering resentment; even if both parties agree to get past the incident. If they are forced to work together on a team project, a lack of trust and emotional distance could have a negative effect on the project's outcome. Not many people can handle working with people they do not like. This becomes even more difficult if the colleagues are on the same grade or in similar positions.
Managers and supervisors are also guilty of this behaviour. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for an angry boss to yell at his subordinates. I have heard, in utter disbelief, about oral abuses being flung at employees with reckless abandon, often leaving emotional scars and diminished self-worth; all which actually reduce performance. This behaviour is not helpful to anyone and has far-reaching implications on employee morale and productivity.
Do not do it.
Do not do it.
The workplace is, (or should be), a professional environment. People have a right to be treated with respect. By all means, voice your disappointments, disapprovals, annoyances to the appropriate channels but leave your ego at home. (A word of caution: only take this action when the annoyances etc. relate to or impact your function/duties as no one appreciates a whiner). Also choose your battles. Reporting the same problem, with the same individual, for three consecutive weeks, makes you look like the problem, instead of the victim.
It is also important, when reporting problems, to phrase your discontent in a low, controlled tone, devoid of theatrics and to keep the complaint as brief as possible, clearly outlining how the attitudes or behaviours of Mr. Y negatively impact your work and reduce your unit's Key Performance Indicators. Even Management, sometimes uninterested with inter-personal conflicts, would see the business sense in resolving the situation...and quickly.
3) Do not put on airs to reflect your status
So you have been promoted to a much-coveted position, by the strength of your hard work and quite frankly, due to pure luck given that five other equally-qualified colleagues were also being considered.
Congratulations. But now comes the difficult part - remaining humble, being sensitive to others and adjusting your communication style to reflect both empathy and responsibility. No easy feat.
Since you are likely to be watched closely by your former colleagues, over whom you now preside, your communications, verbal and non-verbal cues etc. would be the easiest signals of how you function. So your use of speech, the way you write, your body language, tone of voice etc. would all be discreetly assessed.
For example, if you are going to be an effective team leader, you may need to change your communication method and adopt one more attuned to the specific scenario in which you see yourself. Not many are able to do this as they do not feel a need to be apologetic about their successes. Still, adopting a new communication style would become crucial for a supervisory or leadership position, because you would be assessed by Management on how well, or badly, you are able to lead and motivate your team to produce results.
You would not succeed if you instinctively put on airs. In fact, the more successful you are, the humbler you should become.
Arrogance is the absolute bane of career advancement.
Arrogance is the absolute bane of career advancement.
So celebrate your successes privately and among trusted family and friends. But once again, leave your ego at the door.
4) Do not submit grammatically-inept reports
What I have come to realise is that many people are reluctant to draft written communications, and when they do, there are several grammatical mistakes.
What I have not been able to determine is whether poor writing skills are linked to the level of education, a lack of appropriate training, or downright laziness. I am no linguist but I find something rather odd. Some with advanced degrees or seasoned experts and public speakers, write books or publish manuals loaded with many grammatical errors, ranging from syntax to semantics. I have seen mistakes in newspapers as well. This development has often led me to ask in incongruity: what are the editors doing?
Unfortunately weak writing skills are a poor fit for professional excellence at the workplace. One might be forgiven for one spelling error, even though grammar checks with Microsoft Word should eliminate most errors. However, a document fraught with spelling errors, wrong use of synonyms and punctuation blunders, not only distracts the reader from the important content of the document, but actually fails to make a good argument. Many a recruiter or HR professional would cite grammatical errors for many a CV being discarded. Business proposals would not be taken seriously because of such a problem; requests for bank loans would be turned down.
People have busy schedules and a poorly-penned document communicates, (unintentionally), a profound lack of respect for the time of the recipient. For the snotty types, it could also be seen as an insult to their intelligence.
Simply put: keep handing in grammatically-inept reports and watch that promotion slip through your fingers time and time again. We would not all become bestseller authors. Nevertheless, you might not be taken seriously, your brilliance notwithstanding, (and this is a hard pill to swallow), if you cannot, or would not, be bothered to revise your reports and make appropriate changes. If this is a real and ever-present threat to your professionalism, then enrol in refresher classes or writing courses, or hire someone skilled or suitably-qualified, to draft your reports. But do something about it as you cannot wish this problem away.
5) Do not appear unprofessional
This would encompass everything that would scream 'unprofessional' - from the way you dress to the language you use, even during 'down times' at work and most especially, during meetings, forums or other interactions with co-workers and Management.
This point is closely related to #2 above but is also associated with the issue of competence. Sometimes, competence is assessed by the quality of feedback given, or the absence thereof.
One of my pet peeves, while I was employed, was the feedback other professionals could not be bothered to give. Where there is a lack of information, especially between team members or colleagues, frustration levels rise and nothing gets done. The mistake often made is that people tend to wait for complete information or favourable responses before informing relevant parties. This is always counter-productive.
If you do not give factual and prompt feedback, you would be perceived as incompetent, very unreliable and by extension, unprofessional. This development would not earn you brownie points. Remember that perception is important to your career. Who do you think your boss is likely to rate highly in a performance review? You, who would rather wait until you receive all the facts, or your extremely annoying colleague who gives blow-by-blow account of every project and who consistently supplies clear information and makes suggestions even before he is asked?
To recap: dress appropriately for work; share information as soon as you receive it; call when you say you would do so and respect the valuable time of others. In other words, be professional.
6) Do not disclose secrets or confidential information
Since the likelihood is slim that you would be served with a subpoena to appear in court to give testimony in a fraud case of epic proportions, or that you would be held hostage at gun-point and obligated to divulge confidential information, it is generally a bad idea to reveal secrets or betray someone's confidence, no matter how 'juicy' the information is.
This is often difficult to do in the generally-acceptable culture of 'water-cooler' gossip but sometimes, silence is your best defence. Not only would you avoid being drawn into the often-complicated web of misinformation, exaggerated facts and the truth, but you would also be perceived as trustworthy and honest.
Besides, what goes around often comes around, and a careless comment would not only cost you allies at the workplace but there is also a real possibility of your secrets being revealed. Karma is what some call it. This could be 'mistakenly' done in a leaked email, text message or even verbally by the person whose confidence you broke or by anyone else. It could get ugly for you if the secrets are embarrassing or the confidential information is management-related...
If you do not fan a smouldering ember, it does not become a crackling flame. Avoid office gossip.
Excellent communication skills have been linked to career advancement and could even signal a possibility of being considered leadership material. Jenna Goudreau, a Forbes contributor - drawing upon new year-long study of over 4,000 college-educated professionals and 268 senior executives, conducted by CTI and in partnership with Marie Claire magazine - listed the ten worst communication mistakes for your career. These blunders included: making racially-biased comments; sounding uneducated; rambling; and avoiding eye contact.
Clearly, getting communications right at the workplace is not only important for better operational effectiveness but also promotes a healthy ambience whereby employees feel treated with respect and are motivated in their jobs, leading to higher productivity. This is because, (as I mentioned earlier), communications would impact attitudes and behaviours at the workplace. Moreover, becoming better communicators, irrespective of our varied job descriptions, contributes to the overall organisational effectiveness, which benefits both management and employees.
It is true that the corporate communications unit is often responsible for creating varied contents and for disseminating information to relevant stakeholders. However, we should realise that as professionals in an increasingly globalised existence, (we are 'citizens of the world'), being able to effectively communicate at the workplace and in the wider environment, translates to a competitive advantage and quicker results.
And we should also endeavor to explain, like Denzel Washington, in the movie "Philadelphia"*, our points of view in such a way that conveys an 'aha moment' to a four-year-old child...
*Memorable quotes from the film "Philadelphia", (1993).
N.B- Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.