There’s no doubt about it -- the workplace can sometimes feel like an endless entanglement of conflict and confusion.
Miscommunication accounts for some of the most common work issues, like employee dissatisfaction or forgotten tasks. Luckily, good communication skills are easy to learn and endlessly helpful in navigating the office jungle.
Here’s an account of some of the most common flaws in workplace communication, and how you can avoid them:
1. Silence isn’t always golden.
The problem: According to a Cornell study, over half of the workers surveyed said that they rarely spoke to their superiors about problems or ideas (only five or fewer times each year). Fifteen percent admitted to never speaking up at all.
Why so speechless? Some said they had nothing to say, but the majority said they believed sharing was a waste of time or potentially detrimental.
The effect: Employees at every level can make valuable contributions. “We believe the answers don't all stem from better financial models or decision-making at the top,” says Harvard Business Review (HBR). “Rather, employees have knowledge and ideas that could help head off organizational malfunctions and drive performance, if only they'd speak up.
"When only execs contribute to the debate, businesses risk missing out on hearing fresh and interesting perspectives. And employees who keep quiet about dissatisfaction in part ensure that the problems won’t get fixed.
How to avoid it: According to HBR, it’s not enough to leave a suggestion box on the reception desk. Employers should be proactive and ask their employees, “What do you think?” Soliciting feedback will make employees feel comfortable speaking up, not just about good ideas but workplace concerns. Employees can improve their sharing skills by asking questions. Real Business suggests managers give their staff a quota of two suggestions per month on how to improve business.
2. E-mails can create more problems than they clear up.
The problem: The Internet has transformed the way business is conducted and e-mail has become a standard in professional communication. So why do people still struggle with it? A 2005 study found that although 50 percent of all online communication is misunderstood, senders believe that, for the most part, their message is being received clearly.
The back-and-forth nature of e-mail “makes text-based communication seem more informal and more like face-to-face communication than it really is," said Dr. Nicholas Epley, who spearheaded the research. Plus, the results show communication is further hindered by the lack of interpersonal nuances like body language and tone of voice.
The effect: E-mail can create problems or confusion in an otherwise tranquil situation, according to a study in the Academy of Management Review. The article said that messages tend to be interpreted as less positive than intended. Tensions can arise from misunderstood sarcasm, for example.
The solution: They say voicemail is dead but it might be time for a comeback. Leaving a quick message can prevent the kind of misunderstandings brought upon by the informality and emotional vacancy of e-mail. Seventy-five percent of the Epley’s subjects were able to correctly interpret phone messages -- a vast improvement from the 56 percent success rate for e-mails.
3. Listen up!
The problem: Communication isn’t just about saying the right thing. It’s also about knowing when and how to listen. Too often these days, says the Huffington Post, the listener is physically present but mentally engaged elsewhere. He or she hears -- but does not digest -- information.
The effect: If a fellow employee’s eyes seem vacant or glued to his/her BlackBerry screen, the speaker may feel ignored. And the supposed listener might be missing out on valuable information even if he or she thinks they're getting the gist of it.
The solution: When someone’s talking you, listen. Put down your BlackBerry, turn off your thoughts about last night’s American Idol, and synthesize the information handed to you. Listening builds better relationships, facilitates the spread of ideas, and helps improve workplace communication.
4. Don’t let details fall through the cracks.
The problem: With teamwork, especially in bigger teams, an assignment can reach many people before it’s done. With all the handoffs, little details can be easily missed if a group is disorganized, says HBR.
The effect: Failing to stay organized leaves much room for dropped balls. HBR says that even employees who think they’re communicating all the necessary information during handoffs may be missing key details by assuming certain facts are implicit or by not being specific enough. And when a task is miscommunicated, it reflects poorly on the team as a whole.
The solution: HBR has a simple way to stay on top of an assignment for every step: make a checklist. During each handoff phase, discuss questions like, “What do you understand the priorities to be?” and “What are your key next steps?” (Check out the full list here.)