Poor communication is crippling business. Can we talk about that?

Most people think their driving is above average. That’s a statistical impossibility, of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be an average. Still, it’s what we believe. In one study, no fewer than 93 per cent of Americans questioned placed themselves in the top 50 per cent of drivers.

This is an example of what psychologists call illusory superiority. It’s not the only one. Nor does this phenomenon affect only the average Joe. It even afflicts academics at the peak of their careers. In another study, more than 90 per cent of college professors rated themselves as doing above-average work.

This is hardly a new discovery. (That second piece of research was conducted way back in 1977.) But it is one that we’re largely ignorant of. The fact is, we’re all susceptible to illusory superiority of one sort or another.

We’re not as good as we think we are

Most of us falsely think we’re totally objective and impartial, for example. (Yes: we’re biased about being unbiased.) And, though I have only anecdotal evidence, I would guess that everyone thinks they know the best way to manage people. They may base this solely on their extensive experience of being managed. But they’re certain they’d do things differently if they were in charge. It’s only if they ever do get to be in charge that they discover it’s a lot harder than it looks.

And so it is with communication. This is one of those things that everyone thinks they’ve got right – and that many other people haven’t. Which perhaps explains why poor communication is at the root of so many of the problems we find in today’s workplaces.

'Three times more HR managers blame low morale on poor #communication than blame overwork ' – @robert_ashton Share on X

A recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry, for example, found that half the employers questioned were dissatisfied with the communication ability of school leavers.

But that statistic troubles me a little, as again it shifts the blame away from ourselves. It conjures up images of mumbling, hoodie-wearing teenagers. In other words, ‘other people’. Yet it’s definitely not just inexperienced recruits or much-maligned millennials who need help with their communication.  

Just think about it for a second. Have you ever sent an email that got misinterpreted? Do you know anyone who’s mistakenly taken offence just because of an off-the-cuff comment? Have any of your colleagues taken umbrage at something a manager said in passing or been thoroughly demotivated by a clumsily handled performance review? And if so, how long did it take you to get back on track and up to full speed again?

The problem is everywhere

The truth is that, once you focus on communication issues like this, you realise they’re everywhere. And these things waste hours in lost productivity, make our lives far more stressful than they need to be and cost companies millions every year.

The reason we don’t prioritise them is that we lump them in with other so-called ‘soft skills’: a damning, catch-all term for what in reality are almost always core competencies.

In a 2011 survey of more than 1,400 corporate executives, employees and educators, 86 per cent blamed workplace failures on ineffective communication or collaboration. More than 70 per cent thought that lack of candour affected their company’s ability to perform at its best.

Yet another survey, this time of HR managers, found that a third thought poor communication was the biggest cause of low morale. That’s more than blamed lack of recognition of achievements (15 per cent) and overwork (nine per cent) combined. And it’s almost double the second-biggest cause (micromanagement – 18 per cent).

Note that these studies make no mention of the thousands of hours wasted crafting convoluted messages or checking email in vain for urgently needed information, when we could have just picked up the phone. Nor do they mention how long we take to decipher poorly written instructions in the workplace, or the cost of misinterpreting them.

Relationships take months to repair

Poor communication leads to arguments and damaged relationships that can take months to repair – if they ever are. It can create toxic environments and – I suspect – send sickness-absence levels through the roof. Good or bad communication doesn’t just affect an organisation’s culture; it is its culture.

Let’s be clear about this. We’re not talking about ‘Communications’ with a capital C – in other words, a corporate function led by a separate department (usually called Internal or Corporate Comms, or something similar). And communication can’t be covered off by a few initiatives, which launch with a bang and quietly fizzle out. It isn’t something an organisation does to its people.

No, we’re dealing with something that we do to each other, all the time. Most of us spent a huge chunk of our working lives doing it. And we’re getting it wrong, again and again.

OK, you get the idea. It’s a pretty big issue. So what should we do about it?

The first step should be to recognise the problem. Poor communication is the inarticulate elephant in the room. Nobody talks about it (ironically), perhaps because we think it’s just the way things are and always will be. It doesn’t feel like something we can measure or something we can fix.

But we can. There is a wealth of detailed, peer-reviewed research available that can help us address this issue. And a small but growing number of organisations have started to measure the impact of what we write and say, so that we can track improvement. (Emphasis was an early mover in this area, developing its individual document analysis way back in 1999 and incorporating it into all our training.)

'Good or bad communication doesn't just affect an organisation's culture; it *is* its culture' – @robert_ashton Share on X

Personally, this is something I care deeply about. So much so that I am dedicating 2017 to seeking out the best science that can help us all get it right. I’ll be reporting back on my findings as I go – on this blog as well as on Medium and LinkedIn

This is something we could all use some help with, no matter how much we think we’re above average.

Because no matter how good we are, no matter how many other skills we have, they’re worth nothing if we can’t communicate with our colleagues and customers.

If you want to keep up to date with my research, you can sign up for updates on my blog.

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