Communications in the Workplace

Never before in human history have people had so many ways to communicate, and never before have so many people been trying so hard to avoid doing it. Hey, I get it. We’re all constantly being bombarded by junk phone calls, junk email and junk advertising posing as news. Walk down any city street and half of the words blaring out at you have been purposely misspelled so that they can be trademarked. We’ve all had to develop filters to protect ourselves from junk information overload. The trouble arises when we carry those filters into the workplace where communication is paramount.

In the business world we need to radically reduce our filters and immerse ourselves in the flow of information so that we can fully participate in what is going on. We also have to guard against the most dangerous filter of all: the filter of attitude. We often carry this over from our junk information-filled lives outside the workplace, but we need to learn to leave our passive/aggressive side at home.

In the world of business, the term “communication skills” used to mean the ability of a person to speak and write clearly and succinctly but that has changed. Now, it refers to a person’s willingness to communicate, the willingness to do so appropriately, and the understanding of why it’s important. That begs the question: What is appropriate? And why are communications important?

It’s Not All About You

Way back in 1982 The One Minute Manager taught managers to spend the day focused on getting their own work done, and only after it was completed to respond to queries from colleagues and subordinates at the end of the day. I’m here to tell you that way is wrong.

Respond In a Timely Fashion

It’s really not all about you and the massive piles of work you have to slog through. It’s about your entire team and all of your partners getting their work done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Respond to your teammates first and give them all the information that they need. That way you can all work in parallel. If you don’t respond to a query until the end of the day, then your team member’s entire day is lost. If your colleague has a follow up question or needs a clarification – then the next day is lost too. Like most things, it’s all about flow. It’s ironic, you may think that you will get things done quicker by doing your own work first. In fact, you will be sabotaging yourself because in fairly short order, you’ll need answers back from your teammate. You’ll be stuck because he won’t have them. He’ll have spent the day waiting on you. Psychologically, by increasing your colleague’s level of stress, you’ll make him less interested in reducing yours. This effect could be subconscious – but probably isn’t.

So, don’t create artificial communications windows. Instead get back to others quickly and with all of the information that they need. In an era where a great many people only communicate reluctantly you will find that more and more people will want to work with you.

Respond in Kind

Okay, now we’re all communicating in a timely fashion. Emails are bouncing back and forth and work is flowing at an efficient pace when suddenly KAHLUNK! Somebody leaves you a voicemail. “In the twenty-first century, why would anyone do such an antiquated thing?!” Or even worse…call a face to face meeting. The reason for that, dear sir, is because there is such a thing as “The Communications Hierarchy.”

There are different levels of communication beginning with face to face interaction. When we meet someone in person there are multiple pathways to help us convey and gather information. We are helped by everything from facial expressions, vocal inflections, hand gestures and body language. Communication is then and there. Immediate. We can instantly ask questions or repeat what someone has said using different words to ensure that we understand what they are trying to convey. There is an awful lot of information flowing back and forth in a lot of different ways. In short order, everyone is on the same page. Everyone understands.

On a Skype or Facetime call, communication is a little bit degraded. There can be time lags or delays. The image may be jittery. Many people aren’t as comfortable with the medium and may act self-consciously. A little bit of communication is lost. Video chat will never replace “the feeling” of two people sitting together in a room and having a discussion.

The telephone degrades communication a little more. There are no visual cues, facial expressions, or body language. Email significantly downgrades communication because it eliminates vocal inflection which can be quite powerful. It’s very easy to mistake the tone and therefore the meaning of what someone is trying to convey. We’ve all had the experience of misjudging the attitude of what someone has written in an email. Communication continues to degrade on down the line as fewer types and smaller amounts of information are conveyed. Sometimes “the slow way” is actually the fast way. We must choose the right tool for each situation. You may well use text to let your girlfriend know that you’ll be ten minutes late to the restaurant, but you wouldn’t propose to her that way. I hope.

Much of business is conducted by email but different types of communications call for different levels in the communication hierarchy. If someone calls you on the phone or calls a face to face meeting, it’s because they believe that is the appropriate communication tool for the type of discussion that you’ll be having. If you text them back you will appear to be indicating that either you don’t feel they have the ability to choose the appropriate level of communications, or that you just don’t feel that they are important enough to “waste time on.” In either case, you will have added a person to the list of those who think you behave rudely and unprofessionally.

If you ever find yourself writing an email with the subject line: Your Phone Call…STOP…and immediately pick up the phone. If you hit Send, it doesn’t matter whether the recipient is a customer or a vendor, a supervisor or a subordinate, upon receipt they will first roll their eyes and then say the word “asshole.” They may say it either audibly or under their breath but they will say it 100% of the time and they will be saying it about you.

Never Ending Email and the Van Cleef Rule

So many people spend so much time defensively pinging and ponging back and forth on email. Days are lost and projects are delayed because of it. Email is the communications tool of choice for those who want to evade answering questions or only want to partially answer questions or answer only one of three questions. Those people aren’t fooling anyone. Everybody knows that they’re ducking. There is also way too much “Reply All” and CYA (yes, you know what that means) in the email universe. How do we put an end to it?

I have a friend named Chris Van Cleef. He manages construction projects: bridges, skyscrapers, data centers, stuff like that. Companies bring him in when projects are overdue and over-budget. One of the first things that Chris does is to institute The Van Cleef Rule. The Van Cleef Rule states: “If three emails have gone back and forth on a particular topic then you cannot send a fourth email. You must pick up the phone and get it all sorted out.” If you’re working on a big construction project under Chris Van Cleef, you don’t want to break the Van Cleef Rule. Nobody does it twice. You may think it’s old fashioned but the ball moves forward. Things get done. If you follow the rule, everyone will probably get their bonus. ‘Nuff said.

So there you have it. In a world where more and more people are increasingly reluctant to communicate, you can stand out from the crowd and go from a zero to a hero in a hurry. More people will want to buy from you. More vendors will feel inclined to do you favors. More managers will notice you. All you have to do is:

  • Realize it’s not all about you.
  • Respond quickly and fully.
  • Respond in kind.
  • When email starts just going back and forth, pick up the phone.

A simple way to get ahead in your career is to follow those four rules. Use them to your advantage. Use them all the time. You will find yourself among the people that everyone wants to do business with.

Just do it.

Tom Keoughan ©2016