Communication Breakdown

Communication breakdown? How does it happen and how to avoid it.

Communication breakdown. It happens all the time.

You know the one – when you think you’ve delegated something to someone on your team and it turns out they misunderstood completely what you were looking for. They show up, deliverable in hand, and it’s so hard to understand how they got it so wrong.

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I mean you were pretty clear, weren’t you?

Maybe it only happens when you’re in a hurry or preoccupied (or your team member is). Maybe it’s when things are shifting rapidly and there hasn’t been enough time to adjust to new protocols or processes.

Those types of situations are easier to understand but what can be really frustrating is when it happens over and over again with the same employee or two.

So, you start to avoid giving important tasks to “Bill” because he never seems to get it right. It often feels like you spend more time explaining and fixing a miscommunication than the task itself takes.

Well here’s the tough-to-take news: It might be that Bill isn’t the strongest employee, or it might be you.

Not that you’re a bad leader, or a mumbler, or a poor delegate-er because obviously other members on your team understand your direction.

So, where is the breakdown?

It could be that you’ve got a strong communication style.

Let’s take a look at what that actually means because, at first glance, a strong communication style doesn’t sound like a bad thing (and it’s not, necessarily).

We don’t all understand, process, and hear things the same way. Depending on my experiences (over time and that day!) and the lens through which I view the world, you and I could hear the same sentence and understand it in very different ways.

The problem with a singular strong communication style is that communication, even when delegating and giving direction, must be two-way. The employee receiving the direction must receive and understand the message in the same way you think you’re giving it.

For example, imagine that you’re managing a team and there’s been a big delay on a really important project that has to be addressed today. You decide to ask “Bill” to take care of it right away. But, Bill has been swamped all day and another project lead he reports to has already demanded more of him than he can deliver. But, Bill’s trying so hard to do a good job and doesn’t know how to say no to a superior (to his detriment).

Because your communication style is strong and it didn’t take the receiver of the message into account, the task was given to Bill and Bill is overcommitted.

A receiver-based communication style, in this case, would take Bill’s communication skills into account. As Bill’s manager, you would know that he tends to take on too much. You might recognize he gets intimidated by you, particularly when you are fired up, so you make sure to give him an opportunity to fill you in on what’s currently on his plate before piling on more.

You may have noticed this in other situations.  

When someone is angry, they tend to look at the world resentfully. When someone is joyous and eager, they tend to hear things optimistically. You could give the same message to these two people and they would each hear it differently.

Learning to adapt our leadership to the individual requires a bit of work. It requires observing and listening to the employee to start figuring out their behaviour type, using emotional intelligence to adapt our style when required, and communicating in ways that we can confirm the message is received as intended.

What do you do to adapt your communication to the individual? What more could you do?