Based upon a typical workplace scenario, Gary describes the challenges associated with using a single channel of communication. Email in particular is often used ineffectively in the workplace. Strategies are provided to help you to improve your effectiveness when communicating important work-based messages.
“How are things going”, asked Huy.
“Not so well” replied Juanita.
“Oh, my boss asked me for this report late on Monday. So I stayed back to complete it and emailed it to her straight away. It’s now Friday and I haven’t heard anything back from her. Obviously I did a bad job, but I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, nor what to do about it.”
Imagine if you were Juanita. Have you ever jumped to a similar conclusion before? (see The Danger of Jumping to Conclusions and a tool that can help). In this scenario it is likely that Juanita will spend a lot of time worrying about her boss’s reaction to her email. This is likely to distract her from focusing on her work which could reduce the quality of her work. This could then lead to more worrying about her work which could, over time lead to lower and lower performance. In many ways Juanita could create the very outcome that she doesn’t want, i.e. her boss seeing her as a low performer.
There are many ways to manage this scenario after the event. But that is not the focus of this article. The focus of this article is about what Juanita could have done in the first place to ensure that her message to her boss had been received, therefore reducing her concern and worry that occurred in the scenario above.
Too often people rely on a single ‘channel’ of communication when sending an important message. Communication channels are the various forms of communication that we use to send messages and include (but are not limited to):
• Face to face conversations
• Telephone (landline and mobile)
• Skype and other voice over internet protocols (VOIPs)
• Text messaging
• Intranet services
• Letters (snail mail)
• Twitter etc. etc. etc.
There are many, many channels of communication. In Juanita’s situation she relied on a single channel, email to communicate the very important information that her boss had requested. Email, by nature is a one way channel of communication until the recipient of the email decides to make it a two way form of communication. Email is often used effectively as a one way form of communication (such as the global emails that your organisation sends to you that you file for reference), but for an important document email should not be the only form of communication used.
Too many people seem to hold this view about what happens when they press ‘send’ for their emails:
• As soon as I press ‘send’ my email will be received by the intended recipient(s) of the email
• The recipient(s) will receive and open my email immediately, because my email is very important to them
• Not only will the recipient(s) understand what I have sent to them, they will understand it in exactly the same way that I intended my email to be interpreted
• Once understood (which, of course it will be!) the recipient(s) of my email will take immediate action as a result of my email
• The recipients of my email will be thankful that I sent it to them and will respond accordingly
While these views are understandable (after all, each of us puts a lot into the work that we send out) they are fairly irrational. People don’t sit around waiting for our emails to arrive, just like we don’t sit around at work waiting for other people’s emails to arrive. Generally speaking we are all too busy to be sitting around waiting for other people’s emails.
Please note that I am not saying that we shouldn’t send emails. Quite the contrary. Email is a very important form of communication. However, just because we sent it doesn’t mean that it ...
• Arrived at its intended destination
• Was received and fully understood by its recipient(s)
• The recipient(s) had the time and capacity to take action on the email
• Etc. etc. etc.
Having established that a single channel of communication may not be effective for important messages, consider this issue: up to 70% of the written word has its meaning interpreted in a different way than intended by the sender of the message. This is known as a form of ‘noise’. Each of us uses filters and other mechanisms (such as our mental models, see The Importance of Raising Awareness of our Mental Models) to interpret the messages that are sent to us. With written forms of communication it is very easy for us to listen to our ‘own’ noise and mis-interpret the intended message by the sender.
In this context it is very easy for email messages, even if they do arrive at their intended destination to be easily mis-interpreted. For this reason email should not be the sole form of communication for messages that contain potentially emotional content, or content that is highly likely to be interpreted by the recipient(s) in an emotional way. Again when up to 70% of a message can be interpreted in a different way by the recipient(s) of the email compared to the intentions of the sender, it just isn’t worth sending such potentially damaging emails. Find a more appropriate channel to communicate such messages.
While many people now say, “Yeah, I know that I shouldn’t send emotionally ‘charged’ emails, and yes I know that I should compose my emails using correct grammar and spelling...”, a recent study highlighted that a little under 50% of employees had experienced problems because of mis-interpreting messages sent via email.
It really is worth asking yourself, “Is email the most effective way of sending this message? If it is, what other communication channels should I also use to ensure that my message is properly understood?”.
Reviewing Juanita’s scenario she probably should have followed up her email with a quick phone call to at leave a message that the email had been sent. In both the email and the telephone message Juanita could have included a short ‘call to action’ requesting her boss let her know the report had been received. Why? Because Juanita would explain in her short message that due to the importance of the report it would be pertinent to ensure that it had not only been received but included all the correct information.
When given the request by her boss in the first instance, Juanita could have said something like, “Yes I’ll get onto to that straight away and I’ll send the completed report to you tonight. I’ll also follow up with you first thing in the morning to ensure that the report has been received and is exactly what you want. I can also provide a copy on a USB stick and leave it on your desk if you like.”
Using multiple forms of communication increases the chances that important information will be effectively communicated. As this article illustrates, many, many problems arise when important messages are mis-communicated. Therefore, when you next have an important message to communicate, consider the most appropriate channels that you could use to communicate your message, as well as considering how you might pro-actively use those channels to communicate your message.