The Communication Paradox

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member David Creelman.

The standard advice I give in any change effort is to “over-communicate”.  Ask employees if they are kept in the loop the way they need to be and they’ll say “No, we don’t get enough communication”.

Now turn around and ask those same employees if they get too many emails, memos, and reports. They will say, “Absolutely, we get way too much communication.” 

That’s the communication paradox. Employees simultaneously get too much and too little communication.

Understanding the paradox

We can understand this paradox by considering which communication we like and that which we don’t. Let’s think primarily in terms of email.

Email we like is:

  • Relevant – it’s important to our work
  • Clear and action-oriented – it’s very clear what we need to do
  • Concise – it is short

Email we don’t like is just the opposite:

  • Not especially relevant – it’s an FYI or something we’ve been cc’d on
  • Relevant but unclear – we read the email, but it takes a lot of work to figure out what we are expected to do
  • Wordy – it takes far longer to read than was necessary

In essence, it is not so much about more or less communication. What employees want is more selective and higher quality communication.

Tactics for higher quality communication

For the formal messages from HR and leadership, we can and should get input from skilled communicators before we blast off a message. This might mean running things by an internal communications department, using a gig worker who specializes in communication, asking for help from someone in the department who is good at writing, or simply taking more care yourself in crafting the message and deciding who it should go to.

The challenge is that most communication is from individual managers and peers, not HR and leadership. To address the communication paradox, we want all employees to be good at email communication.

If you agree that improving the quality of communications is a problem at your organization, consider the following steps:

  • Gather some data with surveys to test whether your hypothesis that communication is an issue is correct. Also, gather some real examples of bad and good communication as qualitative data to supplement your quantitative data.
  • See if you can get a green light from leadership to work on improving communication quality.
  • If you get the green light, start by improving the quality of the communication of emails from leadership and HR.  Tell people you are doing this. Tell them why. Tell them to pay attention to the style and format because you expect them to emulate that.
  • Build some training on your approach to communication into onboarding.
  • Prepare checklists of good communications along with examples of good and bad practices that people can refer to.
  • Share occasional messages from leadership on the expectation that employees will apply a high standard of relevance, clarity, and conciseness to all communication.

Wrapping up

As is usually the case in management there is no magic in the steps needed to improve communication. We start with data, get leadership buy-in, then ensure that people can learn what to do, and are motivated to do it.

There are two other points worth noting before we end. As much as possible information should be accessed as needed rather than pushed out to people. If there are status updates on a project, these can usually sit in the project management software rather than be pushed out via email.

The other point is that tools like Grammarly are getting more effective at helping people write well. Expect much more from software tools that aid communication in the future. Using these tools adds a small extra step which takes some of the author’s time but saves everyone else time.  If quality communication is a leadership priority, then people will take this extra step.

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