Workplace Communications: To Be Understood or Not to Be Understood

In the workplace, communication is the key to success and requires us to ask: Did we achieve our goal?

Unless we are alone and fast asleep, all of us communicate 24/7 whether we realize it or not, and in a number of ways. Recognizing that fact, there are two critical questions we should ask ourselves:

1. Is our communication intentional?

2. Did we get what we wanted?

In the workplace, communication is the key to success and requires us to ask: Did we achieve our goal?            

Tips for Achieving Communication Goals in the Workplace

  • Define the goal (and articulate the role the person will play in achieving it). Asked another way: What does success look like? What do we hope to achieve from this communication? Defining the goal sounds easy; however, we often communicate first and think second. Reversing the order of those two actions assists in achieving our goals. Also, when employees know the part they play in achieving a crucial organizational goal, they feel good about their work and strive for excellence.
  • Communicate in the method the intended receiver best takes in information. We all take in information differently. The key to success in getting others to do what we want is to communicate with them in the way they best receive information. Is it verbal? Is it written? Is it verbal, confirmed in writing?
  • Check for understanding. Even if we know our goal, and communicate it to the receiver in the manner, method, or mode she or he best receives information, if we weren’t clear, were too quick, or incomplete, we still will miss the mark. We need to verify we were understood.
  • Give feedback, especially positive feedback. Recognize what worked with the communication and its end result and tell the employee. After all, motivated employees are productive employees.

A Story

Stories abound throughout organizations of communications that worked, and those that didn’t. Here is a story that depicts what didn’t work and why from a large nonprofit focused on assisting the disabled.

As he walked out the door for the night, Boss Bob looked at Lilly Associate—a new, energetic, and eager-to-please employee—and said, “I know you’re the new kid on the block, show me your stuff, stay late, mail out these letters, and take them to the main post office. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Bob picked Lilly for the project because he was impressed with everything she had done so far. Lilly, who had just received her BA from a prestigious university, was insulted: She thought the job was beneath her. “This is just mailing a few letters—couldn’t he have asked the receptionist to do it?”

Lilly stayed late, and had to pay a hefty parking fine for over-staying her welcome. Still, she was hoping she had pleased Bob. He walked by her desk the following morning and said nothing. Lilly said, “I’ll never stay late again.”

What If Bob Had Followed the Tips Above?

  • Define the goal and Lilly’s role in achieving it: “Lilly, I’ve been very pleased with your performance to date. I have an important assignment and would like you to handle it. I dropped the ball and forgot to get these thank you letters out to 50 of our largest donors. We will be sending out another appeal letter next week, so it’s important these donors receive our appreciation before we ask them to give again. The letters need to go out tonight. In fact, I need you to take them to the main post office tonight. Can you stay to help out?”
  • Communicate in the method the intended receiver best takes in information: Bob had observed that Lilly’s best work product happened when she received verbal communication followed up by an e-mail. To ensure he would get her best work product tonight, Bob said, “I’m sorry I rattled off so much information. Tell you what, I’ll pop back into my office and send you a confirmation e-mail.” In the e-mail Bob reaffirmed the key points: 1) He had confidence Lilly could successfully complete an important project tonight; 2) The agency needed to thank the 50 largest donors before sending out its next appeal letter, scheduled for the following week; and 3) Could she stay late to get the letters done? However, he forgot to communicate in writing that the letters needed to be mailed that night.
  • Check for understanding: Bob sent the e-mail, and gave Lilly a few minutes to read and digest it. This time, as he prepared to leave, he stated “Lilly, I need to make sure we are in synch. Let me know what you plan to do.” Lilly reiterated almost verbatim what was in the e-mail, so she neglected to state that the letters were to have been mailed that night. Bob said, “Glad I asked, since there’s one more critical part of the project. I need you to go to the main post office tonight to mail the letters out.”
  • Give feedback, especially positive feedback: The next day, Bob stopped by Lilly’s desk and asked how the project turned out. Lilly let him know everything went smoothly, except that she was going to be charged/fined for the extra parking. Bob listened and said, “Thank you! I knew you could get the job done, which is why I asked you to do it. Sorry about the parking; I hope the overtime you earned will more than cover it. If not, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”

Conclusion: By investing more thought and a little more time up front, Bob got what he wanted: a completed project, happy donors, and, a motivated employee.

Employment lawyer, corporate officer, and consultant Diana Peterson-More left a Fortune 200 to launch the Organizational Effectiveness Group, LLC. Her company focuses on aligning people with organizational purpose and strategy. A coach, facilitator, and speaker, she is also the best-selling author of “Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times.”