Good communication in the workplace is essential to growth and success. When communication breaks down, it isn’t just frustrating; it can have a crushing impact on your team’s morale. Cate Huston, who works as an engineering manager at Automattic, thinks of communication as the way people interface with each other. In organizations, many problems circle back to communication issues, because that’s simply how we interact and how most problems surface. While communication can break down for many reasons, Huston says there are five common problems to look out for.
Communication problem No. 1: Lack of depth. Huston says lack of depth shows up most when communicating strategy. Someone will lay out the way forward but will not be able to outline what is changing and will stall on concrete questions. This creates confusion and frustration as people are unable to connect the changes to their day-to-day responsibilities. Good strategy requires depth, which means understanding of key problems and an ability to explain how the strategy addresses them. When that depth is absent, you lose credibility and risk being ignored.
Communication problem No. 2: Conflicting context. When people communicate superficially, without considering the other party’s context, it’s a recipe for conflict and a communication breakdown. Huston recalls a time working on a team where she spent five hours doing a detailed retrospective of a project’s timeline. She discovered a communication disconnect happened months before the eventual failure. At some point, the context of the team and the other people they were working with wildly diverged. The work continued, but they weren’t talking about the same thing anymore.
Communication problem No. 3: No empathy. Many companies are facing an empathy shortage. This becomes particularly problematic when you’re communicating important organizational change. Huston says that an organizational change is usually something that leadership has spent a lot of time understanding and working through, with the broad insight to see why it’s necessary. By the time the plan gets communicated more widely, senior leaders have worked through their own personal feelings about it, perhaps forgetting that for many people now hearing about the plan, this is just the beginning and they will have their own emotions and questions to work through.
Communication problem No. 4: Communication that triggers anxiety. Does it ever feel like when you tell someone something relatively minor and straightforward, they overreact wildly? This is communication that triggers anxiety—when you feel as though you can’t speak directly to someone because everything you tell them is filtered through a layer of fear and worry. This makes conversations harder work than they should be, and more tempting to avoid. Huston encourages leaders to help their team members feel more secure. Invite them to share their concerns and actively work to build trust.
Communication problem No. 5: Assuming unearned trust. Managers must give trust to earn trust. If you’re new to a role or company, Huston says you must remember that trust always needs to be earned from at least some people, so it’s safest to operate like you need to earn it from everyone.
When you eliminate these communication pitfalls, you put yourself in a better position to manage your team and take it to new heights.
Source: Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led both the mobile and Jetpack teams.
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