Friday, March 9, 2012

Leadership series - Part X - Communication is Not Only Electronic

At first I wanted to call this post, "Communication is a Sideways Street" because I wanted to discuss communication across organizational lines. I also kind of liked the title but since I have managed to work it into the post anyway, now I can move on to a different angle. Communication is so important, I thought I would talk about the electronic aspects of it.
It is through communication that relationships are built, issues are resolved and decisions are made. It is through lack of communication that misunderstandings develop and fester or things just don't get accomplished. I have already touched on the need for individuals to reach across organizational lines to communicate with their colleagues. That is quite often done, but it is now often by email. I really think it would be possible to go through an entire career without meeting someone you talk to on a regular basis!

I am going to risk sounding like an old fuddy duddy so before I launch into this, I would just like to point out that I think I embrace technology as much as the next person. In fact, some of my friends call me Mr. Gadget, although they might be a little technologically challenged themselves so I am not sure how much it means coming from them. The fact is that communication has to be face-to-face occasionally. There, I've said it!

Email, text messaging and chatting certainly have their place but communication involves delivering and receiving a message. Sometimes the message gets lost between the two parties because it is impossible to interpret tone, inflections or body language through electronic communication. As everyone who writes a blog or even a letter knows, the only way the writer can know if he or she is actually reaching someone is through feedback.

I went through an interesting exercise related to this when I was working and it really brought home to me the need to ensure that the message you are conveying in your email is what you intended to say. It also emphasized the need to speak to someone face to face sometimes. There was a problem at work that originated a few years previously and that was potentially going to be subject to public scrutiny. I had to go through 100s of emails related to the subject to review how they might be interpreted by someone who was new to the issue or who wanted to interpret them a different way than intended. I was shocked.

Some were meant as a joke that had lost context. Some were cryptic and no longer had meaning. Some could be read in different ways. Anyone with the wrong intentions could easily deliberately misinterpret them for their own advantage. It left us very vulnerable and required a lot of work to prepare for any eventuality.

There are a few lessons I learned from this that I wanted to share. An email is in writing and is in the public domain. Be very careful what you write and think about the consequences. Think about how it will be interpreted. Read it from the point of view of the reader. Would you read it the same way it is being written?  And finally, why not walk over to talk to the person or pick up the phone? Decisions can be documented but maybe far more of the discussion should be verbal. It might reduce the risks!

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