Communication Breakdowns: How Do I Get Action?

In the workplace, we typically communicate out of desire for some type of response or action.   We provide needed information to motivate action.    For those of us that are parents, we know what a challenge it can be to accomplish both.  How often have you spoken incessantly about cleaning rooms, doing homework, or picking clothes off the floor to not avail?  As children become teenagers,   these exchanges can be explosive and lead to a variety of outcomes other than a clean room or a timely return in the evening.   We all have communication filters and I have learned the hard way that as humans we develop fairly early in our lives.  As leaders, we may feel that same way: no matter what and how I say something, I never end up with the outcome I hoped for when I started.

How do employees view communication coming their way? Employees typically categorize communication from supervisors based on its purpose and value filtered by their perceptions and experiences.   As a result, even relatively satisfied employees interpret most communication as being either “smoke” or “bossing.”  “Smoke” is useless information akin to “fluff” that has little real value to the employee, but is provided instead of meaningful information.   “Bossing” is when a supervisor communicates directly or indirectly to request some type of action.  Some employees go as far as considering the communicated information as being manipulative since the information is given not out of a desire to truly inform, but to influence.

Recently, I worked with an organization that was undergoing considerable change related to the recession.  Managers in the organization described employees as having “action deafness” when they were asked to complete their assignments and duties.  Basically, the fatigue of the recession, less availability of resources, and high levels of uncertainty coupled with an unwillingness of the leadership to clearly communicate the situation and future outlook made employees stop listening and shut down.  When the communication patterns of the organization were reviewed in more detail, it became evident that middle managers were suffering from the same or even greater levels of fatigue and were not being communicated with either.  Most responded that they wanted to counter the gossip and anxiety present in the organization with meaningful answers, but they needed guidance from their leaders.  Like many communication issues, leadership needed to set the example.  While leadership felt that more communication would show their lack of insight and planning, employees felt that they could not take action without more guidance and support.

Figure 1: Communication Outcomes

When communication fails in an organization, normally the employees are blamed for not taking the appropriate action instead of the communication process or message.  Two requirements must be present for the desired outcome of communication to occur: understanding and action.  Those receiving the message have to understand what is needed and act on it for the communication to have been successful.

Figure 1 summarizes common outcomes from the communication process that you may have encountered before.  A 2×2 table is utilized to demonstrate the common responses that help diagnosis the nature of the communication shortfall.

Less Understanding, No Action – When there is a lack of understanding and action, the common question you might hear is “what am I supposed to do?”  It is the mantra of those that do not understand their job, role, or responsibilities.  The cause of this issue usually relates to a lack of communication by the supervisor or poor comprehension skills in the employee.  The message needs to be more clearly articulated.

More Understanding, No Action – When an employee understands the message, but does not act, the typical response is “why do I have to do this?”  The employee understands what is required and may even begin part of the required action, but begins to question the relevance, necessity, or value of the action.  This type of response will occur when there is a motivational or engagement issue or a lack of manager effort at aligning the required action with personal or organizational goals as part of the communication.

Less Understanding, Action – When an employee takes the appropriate action without a solid understanding of what is needed, at some point questions arise about “why am I doing this?”  The most prevalent cause is a lack of comprehensive communication on the part of the sender or manager.

More Understanding, Action – The ideal outcome is that the employee understands the message and acts on it appropriately.  An employee that is confident that he or she knows what to do and why will build on that stability and start to look for ways to grow.

You may have employees that fall into each of these categories.  It is important to assess your messaging in the context of the receiver.

In our next post, we will turn our attention to the types of villains that impact communication.

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