Communications in the Workplace
Good communication skills are essential for success in virtually any organization. No matter how good one's technical skills or how innovative one's ideas, if not communicated clearly to others, they are irrelevant. Employees today need to be able to effectively communicate within the organization to each other, their bosses, and their subordinates as well outside the organization to customers or clients and vendors. Clear communication that unambiguously conveys one's meaning, however, is not a simple task and can be hampered by numerous barriers including different perceptions of a situation, filtering, language, jargon and ambiguity. In addition, cultural and gender differences can compound the process, making communication even more difficult. However, through such techniques as active listening, disclosure, and feedback, employees can learn to become better communicators and improve their own effectiveness and that of the organization.
I once worked on a project that required me to use a technical manual written for Japanese fax repair technicians that had been translated very literally (and badly) into English. "Imagine," it started, "two giants standing on opposite mountaintops in the fog." The illustration went on to describe a scenario in which the giants wished to communicate, but were having difficulty because the mountaintops were too far away to allow them to be heard by each other and the fog obscured their view so they could not signal each other. Eventually, the two giants threw boulders through the fog in an attempt to attract each other's attention. The story sounds strange and unprofessional to Western ears, but the point is that communication can be a complex process between sender and receiver, and requires that each party is paying attention and that the "fog" of distortion is cleared away no matter where in the world occurs. Even the very strangeness of the story illustrates how cultural expectations can color what we anticipate to hear.
Communication is the process of transmitting information between two or more parties. Although communication is often thought of as a verbal process, transmissions can also be written or even nonverbal; with our actions or body language communicating our message. Communication can be intentional (the interoffice memo describing a new implementation policy) or unintentional (the boss receives the message -- correct or not -- that the employee is not a hard worker when s/he never gets assignments in on time).
Good communication skills are essential for success in business. No matter how innovative one's idea is, no matter how skilled the service one offers, no matter how much the marketplace needs the product or service, if the business cannot articulate what it can do for potential customers or clients, it will not be successful. Good communication skills, however, are not only necessary for successful marketing. Employees must be able to communicate with each other and management must be able to communicate with employees. A boss who expects employees to be mind-readers will not be a boss for long. A team whose members cannot communicate their ideas to each other will not be able to achieve the synergy that is the goal of such work groups. The technical expert who cannot communicate his/her flash of insight will not be able to use it to help the organization. In short, communication is key to success not only on an organizational level, but on a personal level as well.
A study of entry-level job requirements listed in the job advertisements from newspapers in 10 large metropolitan areas found that "interpersonal skills" were mentioned most frequently. Even for jobs such as accounting where it would be reasonable to assume that mathematical ability was more important than communication skills, it has been found that up to 80% of work time is actually spent in communication rather than in working with numbers. Despite the importance of good communication skills in the workplace, however, research has found that employees often do not possess adequate communication skills for success. As a result, 89% of US companies give communication training to employees in areas such as team building; public speaking and presentation skills; interviewing skills; and business and technical writing.
At its simplest, communication starts when the sender decides to transmit a message to the receiver. S/he decides what message to communicate and how best to express this message (words, gestures, body language, intonation). This message is then sent to the receiver. This person then decodes the message and forms the appropriate feedback, be it a nod of the head, a smile, or other body language; an action such as doing what the sender requested; or forming another verbal or nonverbal reply to show that the message was understood or not understood. This message is then transmitted to the original sender who, in turn, receives and decodes the response, and forms a return message.
This is a simple enough process. However, communication is more than the sender transmitting a message and the receiver responding. There are numerous places during the process where barriers to communication can keep the receiver from correctly understanding the message sent in the way that the sender intended it. When this happens, miscommunication can occur. There are a number of different types of barriers to communication that can lead to miscommunication by hindering the unambiguous transmission and reception of a message between parties trying to communicate. Communication barriers include different perceptions of a situation, filtering, language, jargon, and ambiguity. Other sources of miscommunication include the degree to which the vocabulary (professional, technical, or general) of the two persons is shared, differences in their assumptions and expectations, and their relative skill at forming and decoding messages.
For example, Harvey may wish to tell George that the budget report that he had turned in was acceptable. So, Harvey forms a message: "Good job." However, George may consider the budget report to have been his best work to date or a significant improvement over his previous attempts, and is looking for more effusive praise. The terse "good job" may not carry with it sufficient information to supply George with the feedback he is seeking. As a result, George may think that Harvey did not appreciate his work or that Harvey did not think that George had done an outstanding job. Therefore, even though Harvey may have been trying to praise George, the message that George receives is that the work was neither extraordinary nor noteworthy. Such a situation can result in resentment or discouragement and may damage the relationship between the two co-workers.
Everyone comes to a situation with his/her own unique perspective, including assumptions and expectations. This perspective helps determine how an individual will react to what the other person says or does. For example, in the illustration of Harvey and George above, if George has entered the situation with the perception that Harvey is less than pleased with his previous work, then the off-hand "good work" could make him doubt his competence in other areas or lower his self-esteem. On the other hand, if his perception is that Harvey is pleased with his work in general, then the off-hand "good work" could be a confirmation even if Harvey was condemning the report with faint praise. On a small scale, this could cause needless friction in the workplace. However, if the miscommunication is between George and a customer, it could potentially lead to lost contracts or hours spent focusing on the wrong thing because an off-hand remark was misunderstood.
Different perceptions, however, are not the only reason for miscommunication in the workplace. Because the nature of workplace communication is often more formal than social, communications are often filtered to remove unwanted messages. For example, the culture in some organizations rewards good news but punishes bad news. In such cases, employees may tell only the good news ("we can put on a demonstration for the customer next week") but filters out the bad news ("but only if we get needed input from a vendor on time"). Similarly, when delivering performance feedback, supervisors may try to phrase negative feedback in a positive manner in the hope that it will be encouraging ("you may want to try to make your reports a little longer in the future") rather than giving the employee the entire message ("this report had none of the needed information in it and is totally unacceptable"). In the first example, if the needed input does not come from the vendor, not only does the employee look bad for not having delivered what was promised, but the supervisor looks bad to the customer or executives because the needed demonstration was a failure. In the second example, the employee's feelings were not hurt in the short-term. However, in the long-term,...
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