Communications Management: 3 Fixes for “It Should Have Been Obvious” Syndrome

“Didn’t you read my email?” We’ve all asked this question to our teams before.

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Do you feel like people only catch about 10% of what you communicate? You are not going crazy, it is actually true. People grasp way less in conversations than we think they do. We assume they know what we mean and what we said, but actually, they don’t get most of it, whether verbal or in writing.

Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say, often hear only too late that, “I thought it was obvious that…” or, “I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.” – Keith Ferrazzi. Havard Business Review Blog Network, April 12, 2013

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., calls this the Signal Amplification Bias syndrome (though she jests that calling it the “I’m Sure It Was Obvious” Effect would have been much more to the point. – Too Much Miscommunication in your Relationship? A Simple Fix.)

Signal Amplification Bias is really just a fancy way to say there is a  lack of communication. The tendency is for people to perceive (bias) that they have communicated (signal) more (amplification) information to other people than they actually have.

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The potential for miscommunication was bad enough when we were face to face with people on a daily basis, but now, with more virtual teams and alternative methods of communications, it is getting worse. In the past, I have posted about the lack of contextual cues created by virtual communications and today I will address how you make yourself truly understood by your virtual teams. It is better at the beginning of the project to make sure your team will deliver what you tell them to deliver, then finding out at the end that they misunderstood you when rework can cost you everything.

Here are some suggestions to help get your message across:

Check 4 Times: Ferrazzi, in his article, said that it was not enough to tell someone to “circle back with me” and he is absolutely right. When I want to make sure that my message is understood, especially when giving critical project direction, I check at least FOUR (4) TIMES with the person receiving my message. This may sound like a lot of work, but after many years of managing teams in India, Central Europe, China and other non-native English-speaking countries (as well as across the 50 States – which sometimes might as well be different countries), I have found that spending time making sure my message is understood up front is better than trying to fix a miscommunicated instruction 90 days down the road.

  • Day 1: Tell them what you want to tell them on the phone (or in person).
  • Later that day: Follow up with a detailed email of what you told them. You really need to present detailed instructions otherwise you are leaving your direction open to interpretation. For example, if you want team members to set up a database that lists all the registered participates of your study, do you want them to decide the fields in the database, or do you already have a template in mind? If you want them to do it a particular way, they can’t read your mind, you need to spell it out. Remember, that you get what you ask for.  If you are not specific, then you’ll get what they ‘thought’ you wanted.
  • Day 2: Check that they understood what you told them in another phone conversation. Though I thought, many times, that what I had asked was clear, when I hear it back from the person the next day, I realize what they heard was lacking certain information. Whether my thought process was less than full or lacking some steps on the initial contact or they were distracted, etc. etc., doesn’t really matter. The goal is a complete understanding of the direction from you to the recipient.
  • Later that day: Correct what they misunderstood from your first communication in a detailed email.
  • Day 3: Check that they understood what you said the second time.
  • Repeat the process until you are comfortable that all details are clear.

Using multiple mediums, especially phone and email, ensures that important concepts get repeated in several different ways. This helps, especially, again, for non-native English speakers. When you get directions to a location on your GPS, do you like the map view or the list view? My point is the more ways you can present something, the better chance of it being understood. I like both maps and lists so that I am sure exactly when to turn.

As a young PM, I didn’t realize my signal amplification bias (aka miscommunication) until the first deliverable from the team. It amazed me how much I did not say (or they did not hear). That is when I started using different mediums to catch what might be missed in a verbal conversation, instant message, or email. I learned that details are better sent in writing so they can be discussed, printed and edited by all sides. Today I use social platforms (like SharePoint) so the whole team can see and update the information at the same time.

Breaking communications down into smaller chunks goes a long way toward being understood. Don’t dump a million task on someone all at the same time. If you compartmentalized a few things at a time, then you have a better chance for comprehension. This way you can make sure that the information is understood before moving on to the next chunk. If the communication fits on more than two screens, it is probably too long. (Interesting tidbit: ‘Chunking” – the theory that we remember things in chunks, gives evidence that 7 chunks plus or minus 2 may be all we can handle at one time.) 

Bottom line, whenever you have two or more people communicating, there will always be some communication issues. Keep it short, keep it detailed, and check each parties understanding along the way.  If you do that… the rest should be obvious.

 

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