Fixing Workplace Communication, Chapter 01

So, I am writing a book with what some would say is an unrealistic goal: fixing workplace communication. With such a goal in mind, I believe ongoing feedback must be an essential part of the writing process. So, I decided to share my work as it evolves. 

This issue of Generative Communication includes the first chapter. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.

01: Workplace Communication is Broken

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

Our workplace communication is broken. To fix it, we need to talk less, write more, and write better. Way better. 

That’s pretty much it. I’ll tell you upfront that whatever follows boils down to these twenty words. If there is one thing you should remember and hopefully apply, that is it. 

Short, catchy messages are great. More people will read these twenty words than even the first page of this book. Even if you do read the entire book, you will not be able to remember thousands of words; applying dozens of insights and ideas will not be trivial. When someone asks you what this book is about, you will likely quote these twenty words. A twenty-word message is a perfect fit for how we communicate today, both in the workplace and beyond. It is aligned with the fast-paced way we share ideas, how much capacity we have to process them, and how we respond to them. This twenty-word message fits any popular medium, from email to instant messaging, Twitter to LinkedIn. It sounds like a powerful message (if I may say so) wrapped in a small package, and that is not something to be taken lightly. We will soon see just how crucial such a core message is for practically any type of communication. Yet, I am taking the time to write the following text, and I sincerely hope you will find the time to read it further. Because no matter how well-phrased your core message is, it is practically impossible to lead, drive change, co-create, and deeply interact with people based on just twenty words. 

Imagine sending an email to your colleagues or your team titled “Improving how we communicate.” The body of your email contains nothing more than these twenty words and maybe an invitation to share some thoughts. If email is not your first choice of communication at work, imagine sending this idea as a Slack message. What happens next? 

Let’s start with what won’thappen. Nobody will read this email, have an epiphany, and literally begin to talk less and write more the next day. Nobody can communicate better just by reading these twenty words, even if everyone believes there is something to it. Regardless of how good this core message sounds (assuming you agree with its premise), you cannot do much with it. Not everything needs to be spelled out and detailed explicitly, but a profound change, as suggested by this idea, calls for something more than just a short, catchy message. Even if you find this message appealing, the next step is far from obvious. 

What is much more likely to happen is that this short statement will trigger a series of follow-up messages that will soon become an avalanche of questions, opinions, and comments. “What’s wrong with how we communicate today?” “Should I cancel all upcoming meetings?” “Seriously? Aren’t we allowed to talk now?” “Writing takes much more time than talking. Did you consider that?” “We waste so much time on emails as it is. Who has time to read longer ones?” “Wait, is this even about email?” “Are we expected to write on napkins when we have lunch together? ;)” “What does ‘writing better’ even mean?”… You get the point. 

Such responses are natural, but, more importantly, they introduce some excellent questions — questions you don’t want to ignore. If you are serious about promoting this idea, you must address them. So, you know what is about to happen next. You (or someone else) will respond to every one of these questions and statements. And you will do so in the only way possible for such a heated discussion. You are going to ‘Reply All.’ This would be a perfect time for everyone to take cover. You included. Depending on the original distribution, what started with twenty words will quickly become an endless thread with dozens or more messages. The chances of such a thread reaching a well-defined bottom line are not great. The odds of someone finding and understanding the bottom line are even lower. The probability that the team will act upon it and take part in this profound change — the one hinted at in the original message — is practically zero. Once the snowball is already rolling down the hill, your best bet is to set up a face-to-face meeting about the idea, its implications, and the backlash it has already created. 

If you only had a time machine, this is where you would probably say to yourself, “I should have set up a meeting in the first place.” The problem is that many meetings we attend sound precisely like this textual thread. The phrasing might be different. For better or for worse, the tone might be different. And at least everybody is having the discussion together at the same time and place. But by the time the typical meeting ends, there is rarely a bottom line. And if there is, it is not clear or not actionable. Ineffective meetings result in a series of follow-up meetings (the physical equivalent of a textual thread) or a “decision” to take the issue offline. In the modern workplace jargon, this means back to email. 

I’m willing to bet this chain of events was not all that hard for you to imagine. Chances are that your inbox is full of threads that started just like the one above, and your calendar is full of meetings you consider a waste of time. I will also take the risk and bet that deep inside, you know there must be a better way to communicate, drive action, and promote your goals. If you find all this even remotely familiar, it is because our workplace communication is broken. It really is. People have good ideas and insights, challenging questions and dilemmas, and valuable information to share and discuss. But for the most part, the way we communicate buries all these gems under piles of emails, instant messages, and unstructured meetings. 

The way we communicate is anything but effective. The way we communicate creates the illusion that communication has taken place. 

It gets just a tiny bit gloomier, but we are going to fix all that soon.

Be strong!

This is where I should probably share some overwhelming statistics about the number of emails we send and receive a day on average (1261), how often we check our email or instant messages (every 6 minutes2), and just how many unproductive meetings we feel we attend (83%3). These numbers keep changing with new trends and tools, working modes and constraints, and various organizational practices. Maybe your personal experience is better, and maybe it is worse in terms of absolute numbers. In any case, the numbers are just numbers. What matters is how your daily experience with workplace communication affects your work and the way you feel. Forget the stats, and let’s do a quick sanity check.

Based on your personal experience in your current work, do you agree or disagree with each of these statements: 

  • Some workplace communication holds me back, distracts me, or keeps me from doing meaningful work.
  • Some of my workplace communication can be described as noise.
  • Workplace communication can create ambiguity and uncertainty: The bottom line is vague.
  • Some discussions I attend or lead are hard to follow.
  • I sometimes feel I am missing out on something important.
  • Discussions can become overly emotional or vocal without anyone realizing why.
  • I’m not always gaining fresh insights from my workplace interactions.
  • I sometimes feel I am misunderstood when interacting with others.
  • If I miss some meetings and emails, I find jumping back into the discussions challenging.
  • I could skip quite a few meetings and emails in retrospect without it negatively affecting my work.

If you didn’t agree with any of the statements above, you are either working in an organization that has nailed it, or you are in deep denial. If you did agree with at least some of these statements, you are not alone (if that’s any comfort). 

Apart from the evident impact on productivity and effectiveness, poor communication is a sure way to increase burnout and reduce engagement. When poor communication dominates your day, you feel you are not doing meaningful work. Ineffective communication negatively affects individuals, teams, and entire organizations. For many, the obvious solution seems to be to reduce communication mechanically. This is how policies and practices, such as limiting the number of people in meetings or limiting the length of emails, were conceived. These are not necessarily bad ideas, but they try to relieve the symptoms of poor communication without addressing the root of the problem. If our communication is broken at its core, limiting the time we spend communicating won’t fix it. It might help us feel better because we will spend less time on these ineffective activities, but when we truly need to communicate — when we need to create things together — we won’t have the skills to do it well. 

Communication is at the core of any organization. Anything we wish to create, achieve, overcome, or imagine collectively requires sharing information and knowledge, asking questions, exchanging ideas, challenging, and refining them. You, your peers, your managers, and your team are all active participants, and none of it is possible without communicating. Communicating well, that is. If we do poorly on the communication front, it doesn’t matter if we do more of the same or less of it. We need to do it better. Our problem is not that we have many things to discuss. Let’s assume many discussions are, in fact, necessary. The problem is that we don’t quite know how to make the most of these interactions. 

So, is talking less really the solution? If we just write more, will we automatically improve our communication? If you read just the twenty-word version of the idea (as if it was sent in a short email), the answer is ‘No.’ The way you communicate will not get any better just by following this overly simplified advice. If anything, it might get worse. These twenty words would make a perfect tweet, but no 280 characters can drive a real and profound change. To put this core idea into practice, we have to understand it better. I will need to communicate it more effectively, which, as you can guess, will likely require more than just twenty words. 

We intuitively agree that workplace communication is broken. We feel it is broken. We experienceit during so many meetings and as we read and respond to endless emails and text messages. But what does that mean? What makes our communication broken? What is it in the way we communicate that feeds these negative traits? And most importantly, how can we fix it? 

This is where we start our journey toward fixing workplace communication. 

  1. A World Without Email, by Cal Newport
  2. A World Without Email, by Cal Newport
  3. Stop the Meeting Madness, by Leslie A. Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun, Harvard Business Review July-August 2017

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