Communication Breakdowns: The Big E

A Journal of Communication (Klemmer and Snyder) study in 1972 found that professional, technical, administrative and clerical employees spend 50 to 80 percent of the workday communicating.  Approximately two-thirds of communication was verbal and most involved face-to-face interaction.  Empirical research today produces similar results with approximately 75 percent of employee time involving communication in one form or another.  However, the amount of time spent communicating through personal interaction has been replaced by electronic methods.  It is estimated that today employees interact personally between 25 and 40 percent of the time with the remainder being a mix of electronic methods.

Electronic communication has significantly decreased the size of our world while significantly increasing the resources available.  Today, organizations can assemble multi-locational teams, exchange ideas across multiple experts, and attempting to use technology to leverage people’s potential. The sheer volume is staggering: 294 billion emails on average are sent a day (http://royal.pingdom.com/).  A recent Microsoft study found that the average American employee receives 56 relevant emails a day. A colleague is fond of saying that email is not his primary job function, but it is what he devotes the majority of his time to on a regular basis.  Workplace stress studies have found that even before the recession, stress was escalating in the workplace due to information overload.  A nice email overload piece can be found at the HBS site: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4438.html.

With all of this information flying back and forth, how does this switch in primary method impact the quality of communication?  There are three very common communication breakdowns that occur with electronic communication:

  • Selective reading
  • Rapid firing
  • Ghost voicing

Selective reading

Just as most of us suffer from selective hearing as discussed in previous posts, it is just as common to suffer from selective reading.  How many times have you read through an email or text quickly and made a snap judgment or only realized that message said something different after the next read?  Most of us try to read messages quickly to keep things moving out of necessity.  When phones or face-to-face interaction served as the primary method of communication, a person needed to formulate a message and make more of an effort to deliver it. This more arduous process resulted in less mass messaging.   Today, we can quickly send several short messages with little preparation or even thought.  As a result, we typically spend less time reading, interpreting, and responding to electronic messages.  Picking wrong combination of words can produce some very different messages.

Rapid firing

For all the advantages of email, it has enabled many of us to allow our temper to get the best of us and to later regret it.  Most of us learned to think before we act since a young age.  Technology has somehow grants an exception to most of us.  Think about the times you received a message that was different than what you expected and you almost immediately started writing a terse response.  A wise manager shared with me once that if a message makes you made, you should give yourself at least an hour before responding.  Let things cool down and you may view the message and the appropriate response very differently.  This applies to face-to-face as well as electronic communication.

Ghost voicing

There is something about not having to see or speak to the receiver of the message that gives us a license to go against good behavior and our better judgment.  I first heard the term “ghost voicing” from an employee that described how his supervisor delivered news to his team.  If the manager wanted to insult, demean, or belittle someone, his primary method of delivery was email.  The employee likened the “ping” of an arriving email to the warning of an upcoming paranormal event.  Employees lived in fear of arriving email since the manager could be as mean as he wanted without having to face the person.  Once he could move among as a “ghost” he felt he could say anything he wanted.  Another example is of a female executive that was working on her temper and persistent screaming at employees in the workplace.  After being asked to change her style and methods, she switched to email as a primary method of communication and sent employees all capital letter emails so she could report that she had stopped screaming and use her chosen method of communication.

Basically, it comes down to professionalism and treating others how you like to be treated.  Regardless of the method of communication, the required time and thought should be allocated.  A great resource is http://www.emailreplies.com/.  It provides a concise and sensible list of email etiquette rules.

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