A candidate for an office assistant’s job did exactly as she was told, sorting the day’s mail into different categories. For her, that task must have been particularly challenging—because she didn’t open any of the envelopes. The hiring manager had assumed that the candidate would know to start by opening the mail.
Unfortunately, the failure to communicate well delivers unwelcome consequences in workplaces every day: Projects fall short of expectations, because managers assume that their employees know exactly what to do. No one acts on decisions in a meeting because attendees assume that someone else will complete the action items.
Glance at your messages and to-do list for today. Is an employee redoing a task because that person didn’t understand the assignment? Are you clearing up a dispute with a vendor because the two of you disagree about the terms of a transaction? Do you have to delay a product launch because your employees’ work fell short of your expectations?
Taking time up front to communicate clearly saves both time and effort in the long run. Adopt these practices:
- Never assume understanding. What do you mean when you say the new ordering system should be “easy” or the brochures should be “blue”? Team members’ interpretations of those instructions could vary significantly from your vision. Be specific about what you want, provide examples when possible and ask other people to describe the situation in their own words. You will be surprised by how often you identify a misunderstanding.
- Draw out questions. Asking “Do you have any questions?” when you make an assignment is nearly useless, because most people will rush to say “No.” Asking “What questions do you have?” is more likely to draw out queries. After the person has had an opportunity to start working on the assignment, ask again.
- Verify in writing. Whether you hold a meeting or an impromptu conversation, follow up immediately by documenting any assignments or agreements in writing. Often a brief e-mail will be enough. That provides everyone involved with documentation about what you expect.
- Overcommunicate. For important messages, once is never enough. Repeat the core idea in different formats and delivery methods. If you are rolling out a major change, for example, that might include giving a speech to your entire organization, scheduling meetings with each department and sending a memo to everyone in the organization. Talk personally with frontline staff to ensure that the correct message is filtering through to them, and not being twisted along the way.
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