‘Fuzzy com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ can blur the lines

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS - STEVE TWEDT Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

Ev­ery­one gets the pep talk at some point in their ca­reers: Stay pos­i­tive. Take some ini­tia­tive. Be a team player.

Such well-worn (or, more likely, worn-out) bro­mides are meant to en­cour­age and mo­ti­vate.

How­ever, even the sim­plest mes­sage sent is not al­ways the mes­sage re­ceived, says work­place per­for­mance con­sul­tant Rex Con­ner, and that is not good for ei­ther em­ployee or em­ployer.

“It will cause in­ef­fi­cien­cies in the work­place, cre­ate con­flict and it’s go­ing to hurt pro­duc­tiv­ity,” said Con­ner, lead part­ner and owner of Utah-based Mager Con­sor­tium. “It’s re­ally a bot­tom-line prob­lem.”

While short declar­a­tive sen­tences — “You’re not a team mem­ber” — may sound clear enough from the sender’s stand­point, Con­ner la­bels th­ese trite phrases “fuzzy” com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“It’s any time you’re talk­ing about per­for­mance on the job and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

Con­sider one real-life ex­am­ple, he said: When par­ents ask their chil­dren to clean their rooms, how of­ten does the chil­dren’s idea of what “clean” means dif­fer from the par­ents’?

“Un­less you clar­ify it, you just don’t know.”

In the work­place, a su­per­vi­sor’s ex­hor­ta­tion to the staff to “be posi- tive” may be de­liv­ered with the best in­ten­tions.

But some may won­der if that means they shouldn’t raise ques­tions about any of the boss’s ideas. And how do they rec­on­cile that with the same su­per­vi­sor’s en­cour­age­ment to “show ini­tia­tive”?

Con­ner sug­gests press­ing for more spe­cific in­for­ma­tion. “I would say, ‘Hey, boss, when you ob­serve me be­ing a team mem­ber, what are you ob­serv­ing me do­ing?’ “

He ac­knowl­edged that such ques­tion­ing re­quires tact, tim­ing and diplo­macy, and even then it won’t al­ways work. Con­ner said he once got the “be a team player ” direc­tive from a su­per­vi­sor and his re­quest for specifics did not end well.

“In this case, the boss was say­ing, ‘I don’t like you and I’m go­ing to force you out.’”

Still, there are other sit­u­a­tions — ad­ver­tis­ing to fill an im­por­tant po­si­tion, for ex­am­ple — when it’s cer­tainly in the com­pany’s in­ter­est to com­mu­ni­cate clearly in or­der to find the best can­di­date for the job. In­stead, many will sim­ply pro­vide a list of re­quire­ments such as “strong com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills,” an ad­vanced de­gree and five years’ ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Five years of ex­pe­ri­ence doesn’t tell me what skills are needed for the job,” Mr. Con­ner said. “What spe­cific skills are we look­ing for that the per­son needs on the job?”

With­out those specifics, he warned, both par­ties may be on a path to an­other fuzzy com­mu­ni­ca­tion a few months down the road — when the com­pany de­cides that you’re “not a good fit.”


Even the sim­plest mes­sage sent is not al­ways the mes­sage re­ceived.

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