Communication Chaos

Organizations are strange. Well, organizations are just fictional entities, so one might argue that the people running the organizations are strange. But something in the organizational context makes people think and behave differently. It is not uncommon, for example, that organizations try to fix problems concerning human dynamics using a simple predefined set of rules, only to repeatedly discover that this attempt is futile. We seem to never give up on trying to invent strict rules that govern how we manage time, prioritize tasks, manage a team, plan a project, and… you guessed it: communicate. 

Workplace communication is overloaded with problems and inefficiencies. Practically all of us have experienced it or are experiencing it. For the most part, we just don’t communicate effectively with our colleagues, team members, and managers. We waste a lot of time and energy; we often don’t understand what others mean; we are often misunderstood; we communicate stuff we don’t need to, and we fail to communicate when there is simply no other choice. And since this problem is so widespread, many people in numerous organizations try to solve it, and most try to do so with the simplest tools organizations have: rules and guidelines. 

This is precisely how the idea for Meet-Less Monday was conceived; this is why some organizations encourage us to shorten the time of meetings or the length of emails, and this is how policies such as “Slack-only communication” are mistakenly seen as efficiency boosters. Spoiler alert: None of these rules and policies work in the long run because communication cannot be governed and made effective using strict technical limitations. 

One reason strict rules cannot radically improve our communication is that communication is context-sensitive. Communication is nuanced, and strict rules, while easy to enforce, are not. The people who develop these rules try to cover a vast ground with simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions. In the context of effective communication, the details are always important. What we aim to achieve can (and should) affect how we communicate. The people we communicate with affect how we communicate. No closed set of rules can cover the different goals, people, situations, and unexpected dynamics we will encounter. Even a simple question, like what is the best communication tool, doesn’t have a definitive answer

But there’s an even deeper reason why rules alone cannot improve our chaotic communication. We intuitively believe that rules are the solution to chaos. Surprisingly, chaos can quickly emerge even if everyone follows the same simple rules. 

It’s called Deterministic Chaos, and one of the simplest ways to demonstrate it is the Double Pendulum. A pendulum, as you might know, has a very predictable movement. By knowing its dimensions, you can practically predict where it will be at any point in time. One would assume that attaching two pendulums will create a more complex but no less predictable movement. The dimensions are all known, and the forces operating on the new system are similar. Surprisingly, though, the movement of the Double Pendulum is so complex that it is practically unpredictable. Its dynamics become chaotic. 

Systems that are deterministic yet chaotic are governed by a predefined set of rules. They could be easily described using a set of mathematical equations. At the same time, some systems are so sensitive to their initial conditions and changes that they become highly chaotic and unpredictable. The longer such systems work and the more parameters can influence them, the more unpredictable they become. But as the Double Pendulum demonstrates, it doesn’t take much to destabilize such a system. Avoiding this chaotic movement (making it predictable) is practically impossible in the real world. 

Something similar happens when we try to make communication less chaotic by applying strict (even mathematical) rules. Even if we ignore the problem of taking something as open as communication and constraining it to strict rules, a communication flow between two or more people is affected by numerous things beyond the rigid setup organizations believe they can control. 

You can decide, for example, that meetings will be restricted to five participants, that meetings will never exceed 30 minutes, that the agenda will be shared in advance, and the speaking order will be predefined. Some of these guidelines might be very effective in some contexts. Few of them might even be universally considered good practices. But this strict set of rules, as helpful as it may be, cannot prevent chaotic communication simply because it cannot capture the full range of this human interaction. 

The dynamics of any communication are susceptible to the people taking part in it; a different group of people will result in a radically different outcome. The time (and method) of preparing for the meeting is also crucial in affecting the result; it’s not enough to define that the agenda will be shared to allow preparation. Whether I could identify (and invite) the right people in the first place is a crucial factor. And even if we manage to address all of the above, misunderstandings, false assumptions, and sometimes our inability to find common ground for the discussion are not a rarity. 

Our workplace interactions are sensitive; any subtle change can have a massive impact on the outcome. We can (and should) try to create an optimal setup to manage the conversation, but we will never be able to control everything that affects the quality of our interactions. Nor should we try to. As much as I like well-defined processes and models, technical rules cannot make our communication effective in the long run. The rules and guidelines can create an effective framework, but just like the Double Pendulum, the real world will always surprise us with something we cannot control. 

Does that mean communication is all about chance? Is the attempt to make communication more effective a lost cause? Of course not. Communication is a skill, and like other skills, there’s a lot we can do to continually improve it and increase the chances for effective interactions. To make communication more “predictable,” we need to improve the way we process information and the way we articulate what we have in mind; we need to be more attentive, listen, and observe as we interact; we should notice what works and what doesn’t in any specific interaction; we should improve our ability to adjust on the fly; and most importantly, we must never lose track of what we aim to achieve. 

No set of equations or organizational guidelines can capture these capabilities and do the work for us. A good setup can undoubtedly help, but at the end of the day, effective communication is 100% on every one of us.

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