Simply Great or Simply Most Complex?

I’ve noticed a recurrent personality type in the workplace. The person who seeks to take a simple task or communication and make it as complicated as possible. A former boss joked about one of our colleagues that it was like she wanted to take two bus transfers to cross the street. That could be said of many of people in the workplace. Sometimes it’s a matter of brain function, with some minds seeming to prefer the unnecessarily complex, and sometimes it’s a matter of posturing. The more complicated and challenging a communication or task, the more respect it will garner, that line of thinking goes.

A recent article in Forbes sheds light on this phenomenon, noting that simplicity creates more effective and engaged workforces. For instance, a marketing campaign with just one message, such as one brand, will be more successful than a marketing campaign where people are asked to focus on a laundry list of messages. Similarly, tasks are more successfully executed when they are simply communicated, and when employees are asked to do one main thing.

How can you train simplicity? You can model it from the top in the communications from top executives. What do the e-mails to your employees from the CEO look like? Are they friendly, yet quick and to the point? Are they full of pretension and euphemisms? The language employees speak is set from the top, so if your highest executives couch all messages in complex language like a teenager trying to pad a thin essay, many of your employees will take that as a cue and do the same.

Do you think communication lessons in leadership development could be useful? I can imagine a module in which participants are given a message such as a marketing directive to communicate in three ways: first by e-mail, then over the phone, and finally in-person, face-to-face. You might be surprised at how much even high-performing employees have to learn about communication, and also how much about your employees’ personalities such an exercise reveals.

For example, I communicate best by e-mail. I’m shy and introverted and enjoy writing, so I find it far easier to carefully craft an e-mail than I do trying to remember everything I want to say when face-to-face with another person. Face-to-face, I get easily sidetracked into tangential conversations that have nothing to do with the point I need to communicate. And sometimes I get anxious and forget everything I mean to say and ask because of too much nervous energy. I often first try communicating via e-mail with co-workers and business contacts, and then am surprised (and a bit annoyed) when I find many others much prefer a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Unlike me, many of them find the written word difficult, and they are personable enough face-to-face that the force of their in-person presence aids communication. While they could work on their written communication skills, I could work on my face-to-face communications.

I’ve often heard about and experienced e-mails that are off-putting. The written communications come across as brusque and unfriendly or authoritative and heavy-handed. Have you received e-mails like that? Then when you speak to the person over the phone, or meet him or her face-to-face, you find there’s a friendly and kind person behind the offensive e-mail. On the flip side, I’ve found people often like me best when interacting via e-mail. I’m more confident, to the point, and friendlier in e-mail communications than I sometimes appear in person due to my shyness and anxiety.

Learning how to communicate simply is, ironically, more complicated than just finding easy and fast ways to transmit messages. It’s also about striking the right tone and being personable. You can be simple and efficient in your communications, but be counterproductive because you come across as unfriendly, brusque, or pushy.

To make it even more challenging, being simple in communications also requires knowing your audience and your company culture. The thing that’s funny to me is there are people who like to be communicated with in a brusque, authoritative way, or at least don’t find it offensive like I do. And there are many others who probably find the way I communicate maddening. I get to the point without complicated language, but I shy away from giving directives, instead preferring to pose to-dos as requests, with invitations to let me know if the recipient thinks he or she will have trouble executing.

How do you train your budding leaders to communicate in simple, yet personable ways, to all of the audiences they interact with? What’s the cost of a workplace with communication that’s unnecessarily complex and off-putting?