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Leadership Corner: Re-envisioning Communication
February 14, 2019

By Elizabeth A. Rosso

Communication is a vital part of our everyday lives, and is central to every interpersonal interaction that we have, so it seems like an appropriate topic for our first substantive Leadership Corner discussion.
 
How do we communicate?  Specifically I’m asking about how we communicate at work, but let’s keep non-work interactions in mind as well, whether they be with our family, with our friends or neighbors, or even with strangers. (Yes, strangers. Trying to get people we don’t know to buy our product or service?  We are communicating with good old-fashioned strangers). My guess is that in every one of these situations, our method is largely the same: we communicate through technology, which in the workplace primarily takes the form of email. But why? And should we?
 
There is a myriad of reasons why we rely on email, text message, or other social media to convey our messages. Maybe we want or need a written record of the conversation. Perhaps the recipient is not co-located with us. Perchance we only desire to pass along information (“running late, be there in 10 minutes”), to which a response is neither desired nor required. Each of us could fill in our own reasons. Whatever the reason, though, the truth is that written, impersonal communication has become the default du jour.  Let’s examine the effectiveness of this particular habit, as well as some alternatives.
 
In my experience, every organization assesses its own workplace atmosphere at some point, and perhaps on a regular basis. Whenever I’ve had the chance to be debriefed on the survey results, the top concern is always the same: communication. Usually the problem is too little/inadequate/untimely communication, though on at least one occasion I’ve seen feedback indicating too much communication.
 
Now, in some cases there truly may be a lack of communication. But many times I believe that it’s not the frequency or amount of information being disseminated but rather the method—the meaningfulness—that is the real problem. Emails to ask and answer quick questions are efficient and oftentimes necessary. Non-verbal means of communication (think office newsletter) may actually be the best way to keep a large number of people up to date on the variety of things your team, department, or company is doing.  But if you want to build trust, nurture professional relationships, and improve office morale, try communicating in person.
 
In the interest of full disclosure, I am bad at this.  I get cozy in my office and feel efficient when I can dash off an email as soon as I have a thought.  But I have a much better day when I talk to people in person, or at least on the phone.  This is true whether I initiate the conversation or whether someone comes to talk to me.  It builds a sense of community and lets me know that I am part of something, rather than just toiling away in isolation.  And perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s often much more efficient to talk through a complex question or concept in person rather than trying to analyze it in writing.
 
So here’s what I propose: before sending that next email, pause and think about whether email is the right medium for that particular message or recipient.  If not, make an effort to get up from your desk and walk down the hall to communicate in person; to stop in the break room to chat with a teammate about a project; to pick up the phone and actually let a project manager in another state hear your voice. There’s a richness to these personal communications that’s lost in the cold efficiency of technology. Yes, we probably can send an email in less time. Yes, sending a message lets the recipient read and process it on their own schedule rather than imposing our presence upon them. (Unless you’re that person who sends an email to a colleague and then immediately walks down the hall to their office to say, “So, I just sent you an email that said such and such....” If you are that person, I submit to you that through this practice, you are exhibiting a desire for interpersonal interaction, but are stuck in the email habit.  Skip the email and just talk).
 
If we still need a record of the conversation, we can always send a confirming email afterwards. In the meantime, though, we will have had a much clearer, more productive conversation, in part because we could hear our colleagues’ tone of voice, read their facial expressions, and understand their body language. And chances are our colleagues will feel that they have participated in and contributed to something, rather than just collected another email in an ever-growing inbox. They may even appreciate that we took the time to interact with them as if they were...actual people. The workplace needs to be productive and professional, but that doesn’t mean we check our humanity at the door. Cold sterility is wonderful if you work in an operating room. For the rest of us, a little interpersonal interaction every now and then gives meaning to our work.
 
As for those other communications we’ve been keeping in mind (family, friends, strangers), there are dividends to be had there as well.  Potential customers or clients can ignore, throw out, and/or delete a mailed or emailed sales pitch, but it’s a little harder to walk away from a live person.  Even family and friends can infer a tone from a text or email that might not actually be there.  Personally I think it’s much more interesting and revealing to talk to kids in person rather than by text or telephone.[1]  Parenting and friendship require leadership too, and represent opportunities for us to have a positive impact outside of the workplaces where we spend so much of our time.
 
Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.  All I’m suggesting is that one way to enrich our workplaces and communities is to re-examine the very core of our interactions, and to change the nature of some of those interactions if we see room for improvement.  The worst that can happen is that nothing changes and we revert to the status quo.  But maybe, just maybe, one small change enriches some part of our professions or communities in ways we never imagined.

[1] Caveat: I don’t have kids, so this is probably easy for me to say.  After all, I can send the godchildren back to their parents when I get tired or frustrated!
 



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