Proper communication is one of the most important factors affecting the performance of an organization. If proper communication channels exist, then information is quickly disseminated and actionable items are identified and processed immediately.
However, if communication in an institution is flawed, the result is chaos — people have incomplete information, and, worse, actionable items slip through the gaps. It is very important to the health of an institution that all its members observe proper communications.
At this point you may be asking yourselves, what can possibly go wrong with communication? After all, we all communicate on a daily basis with each other, what can possibly go wrong when this is done in a professional setting? Unfortunately many things can go wrong.
Here are some of the issues typical of bad communication
- An actionable item is sent without specifying the action
- An actionable item is identified as actionable, but is sent to a group without being assigned to a specific person
- Actionable items are sent with very short notice before their due deadline
- Items are sent without any label or context to specific their purpose
Each of these is a major issue that can cause communication to break down. We will now take each of these and discuss them in detail.
Not identifying actionable items as such
Too often, a boss or colleague will send you a document without informing you of the action needed. In many cases, action can be inferred from context. For example if you were in a meeting about the financial statement of your company and you discussed earnings, an email or message containing updated earnings after the meeting can be easily interpreted to mean this is the updated earnings report, use it to update the financial statement.
Unfortunately, there are also many cases where the action required cannot be inferred from the context. Let us assume that you work in a company that has multiple branches, and that the sales department in a branch you do not work in produced a report about the lack of movement in the sales of a specific product.
Assume further that your boss sent you this report in a group email. What action can possibly be inferred from this? Note that in many cases many bosses just attach the file and say something like this is the sales report from our Canada branch, no further context is provided.
The problem with this type of communication, which unfortunately happens more often than one would imagine, is that it is not clear what is needed.
Should the sales department in your branch study this and report to the other departments? Should you read it and provide your feedback? Should the production department use the information it contains to modify production to meet current market needs?
Nothing is clear. Not only does this cause a waste of time as people attempt to understand what is needed, but it also causes a numbness to future messages — send too many messages of this type and your colleagues will eventually learn to ignore what you send.
Lack of assignment of responsibility
This is related to the previous message, but instead of not identifying an item as actionable, it refers to not specifying who should do the required action.
For example, assume that you are the head of the production department and need figures on the production of a particular product. Sending a group message to all the production team requesting this data without specifying which member of the team is responsible for the task is not a good idea.
You need to clarify which member of the team is responsible for the task — otherwise you may end up not having the result you want as everyone assumes that someone else is responsible for the task.
This is especially important if you are sending a message to an inter-departmental group and need departments that do not normally handle the domain of the message to take action on its content.
For example, assume that you send a sales report to top management by group email and say something like please check and report. It is natural to assume that the sales manager will do this. So managers from other departments will ignore the message. If you want everyone to provide feedback about the report, clearly state this, using something like I need the feedback of all departments on this sales report.
As for the previous point, if you send too many of these messages, messages without clear designation of responsibility, you numb your team to the importance of your communication. You need to clearly identify who should execute the task you specify.
Short notice messages
This is another flaw in communication I find very common in some institutions — sending a message requesting a task with very short notice until it’s due date.
Of course, sometimes a real emergency comes up and the organization needs to respond to changing conditions quickly. In that case, it’s ok to ask for a task with a short notice deadline.
But too often management forgets, or chooses through some perverted logic, to inform employees of a task that they were aware of for a long time only when it’s deadline is almost due.
This is a terrible idea, and gives one of two impressions. First, that management is not competent enough to look at their calendars to check commitments and request work pertaining to those commitments early enough to give everyone involved enough time to do the task.
Second, that management is aware of the commitments, but doesn’t care enough about the time of employees to inform them early about the required tasks. Both of these impressions are detrimental to trust and will result in an erosion of work ethic.
Plan ahead sufficiently so that you give your employees enough time to respond to your requests. Emergencies will occur, but if you respect your employees by giving them enough time to finish their tasks, when a true emergency occurs they will go over and above to respond to it before it’s deadline.
Not providing any context to content sent
I have unfortunately seen this type of communication many times. A file is sent by email, slack or any other form of communication without any label — none whatsoever, just the file. This is the worst type of communication possible.
What is the content of the file? What do you want the recipient to do with it? Say something that will help the recipient process the file. To be honest this type of communication is impolite, it essentially says “my time is too important for me to write anything about this file, and your time is less important, so open the file and find out what it’s about”.
To conclude, bad communication can cause many problems. Not identifying actionable items, not assigning the task to a specific person, sending communication about a task right before it’s deadline and sending items without saying anything about them are some of the bad forms of communication I’ve seen.
In order for your messages (email, slack, WhatsApp or any other method of communication) to be meaningful and useful, you need to
- Clearly describe any attachments in the message
- State the action that the recipient needs to perform
- Identify the person(s) response for the action
- Clearly specify the deadline and send the message well ahead of the deadline to ensure enough time for the recipient to perform the task
If you do the above, you’ll reap the benefits and enjoy smooth operation. If you don’t, your organization will be chaotic and you will lose productively. Communicate wisely.