Getting the Message

Most of us would agree that words matter.  Our friends, family, and coworkers judge our thoughts, emotions, and motives by our chosen words.  Similarly, our direct reports and customers assess our communication and determine the significance, alternative meaning, and relevance any time we communicate with them.  With everyone listening, it is easy to assume that the right message ends up with the right people.   However, communication possesses a few more complications.

Different people hear different things from the same communication.  Each exchange begins with an idea, moves through the sender’s and receiver’s filters, and arrives at receiver.  This filtering process creates many of the communication issues that we deal with on a daily basis.  Typical filters include nature or type of the message, personal experiences, personality traits, emotions, preformed perceptions, and expectations.  For example, if the receiver lacks trust in the sender, then the message interpretation varies from the interpretation of someone that feels a sense of trust toward the sender.  These differences in interpretations hurt relationships, productivity, as well as performance.

Think how many times you have participated or overheard a conversation where the participants tried to “read between the lines” and determine what the communication really meant.  At times, the interpretations vary as much as the participants do.  In other words, everyone heard something unique.

As human resource professional, we consider ourselves “people-people” and include effective communication as a central competency.  As people gurus, employees and managers alike seek our aid assuming we have an easy answer to their issues.  Even with the shift to more decentralization of human resource responsibilities, most managers consider human resources a source for knowledge of why people do what they do and how to get the most out of their employees.  Given this perception, why do some employees and managers go away unhappy after interacting with human resources? A common complaint regarding our interaction pertains to what those seeking advice think they hear.  A 2011 HCS survey found that 62 percent of responding managers and employees felt frustrated with the answers given by human resources.  When asked what created the frustration, the most common answers were:

  • HR did not know what to do about the issue
  • HR appeared overly concerned with rules and regulations
  • HR focused more on their processes then actually helping to their customers improve their operations

When considering each response, filtering definitely seems at play.  Although these characterizations would have been common in the past, most human resource functions have evolved to be more solution-focused in the last decade.  When we apply old filters to new, yet typical statements, some of the perceptions become a little more obvious.

Typical Statement What is Heard
HR has to follow legal requirements to protect the organization. I really do not want to help you and the rules are my favorite excuse.
Have you discussed your concerns with the employee? I am going to make this unpleasant process last as long as possible by having you go back and meet with the employee again.
We will need to include documentation in the employee’s file and then we can move forward. In order to justify my existence, I have to make things as cumbersome as possible.
You have to encourage this person to help them be successful. We have no idea what to do to help you or the employee with this issue, so go back and try harder.
I understand you need to fill these vacancies as soon as possible, but we need to follow our process. I know it takes a long time to bring someone on-board, so I would make sure you do not need to hire anyone in the future.
We do not offer that training until later this year. We really do not see a reason why we need to be responsive to your needs.
I know you want to keep this star employee, but we have to insure that we maintain internal equity. We will not change compensation unless we think of it first.
We want to help, but this type of analysis takes time. We are busy with other things; do not bother us right now.
We cannot make an exception without offering the same opportunity to everyone. Your employee is not special, nor or you and I see no reason to help you with alternatives.

In each of these cases, the received message fails to correspond with our intent.  In the next post, we will discuss what we can do about it.

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