Communication at work can be tricky. Determining the effectiveness of that communication is even trickier still. In “Communications at Work: Understanding and Being Understood in the Organization” by Dr. John Poirier, an ebook published by Poirier & Associates, Inc., Dr. Poirier examines the communication process, perception and style, the “four primary channels of communication at work” as well as how to deal with conflict, meetings, and “media richness” resulting from many new channels the digital age has introduced.
Dr. Poirier’s premise is built on the idea that communication at work is particularly difficult because it includes what he describes as “hard” and “soft” data. Hard information being the who, what, where, when and how. The soft, conversely, is the opinions we have about issues, people, decisions, management and more. As Dr. Poirier states in his conclusion, “the workplace is a performance based system that also has social, political and cultural dimensions.” This is a complicated issue that Dr. Poirier succeeds in illuminating with great skill.
Signal and Noise
Dr Poirier tells us simply that effective communication is “when the sender’s intent of the message is understood by the receiver.” The rub comes down to language, or what Dr. Poirier refers to as the encoding of the message. This encoding can include words, symbols and even pictures. Communicating a message by phone, text, email or in person describes the medium. The medium through which we choose to communicate can enhance or diminish the effectiveness of our communication. So too does the absence of what Dr. Poirier refers to as a “feedback loop”, in other words, a way for the receiver to obtain clarification. Without this clarification there can be serious communication breakdown.
But even having a feedback loop doesn’t guarantee better communication. Dr. Poirier describes these additional barriers as “noise.” Noise can be real - a loud office, a bad phone connection, or it can be figurative, reflected in semantics. Jargon, and the use of corporate or business terminology can quickly obscure a message. Who hasn’t sat in an IT meeting only to be bombarded by a long list of lingo and acronyms? Another type of noise occurs in the mind of the receiver. Dr. Poirier makes the observation that “we listen to people at a rate of 225 - 250 words per minute, but think at between one and three thousand words a minute.” Under these conditions people have difficulty paying attention. When the mind wanders it’s easier to miss or misunderstand what is being said.
When Perception is the Truth
According to Dr. Poirier, the most insidious type of noise may be found in our own perceptions of the world and the personal filters that each of us present when engaged in communication. Not surprisingly these filters are derived from our backgrounds, experience and education. Dr. Poirier describes perceptions at the most basic level as “the meaning we assign to unspoken or proximal cues such as tone or body language,” but perception can also include stereotyping and prejudice. Our egos play an important part in how we listen. Our ego can affect how we might wrongly communicate with a subordinate. We are more likely to discount or disregard a message coming from an individual, or even a group of individuals within the organization based on hierarchy, age, gender, race, etc. Dr. Poirier challenges us to take a brief assessment to determine what our dominant communication style is - Direct, Spirited, Considerate or Systematic.
Vertical and Horizontal Communication
Dr Poirier examines the channels used to communicate at work. These reporting structures are reflected in the classic org chart. This kind of “vertical” communication leaves lots to be desired when individuals try to move horizontally. Dr. Poirier uses the example of the President who goes directly to the VP of Marketing without engaging the Executive VP that the VP of Marketing reports to. While this may not be as problematic in a small company where everyone has an opportunity to meet face-to-face, it raise the issue of ”what one expects to hear.” We have all heard a CEO or President exclaim their frustration that “no one will tell me the truth.”
While Dr. Poirier offers a rich analysis and insight into techniques to improve this up and down communication, the bottom line is that “effective vertical communication depends on a culture of trust.”
Internal and External Channels
There is a lot of useful information here. Dr. Poirier covers both the formal and informal channels. He describes what he calls “communicating in the whitespace of the org chart” and how much, or how little, personal information should be shared at work, a precarious balance that is difficult to achieve and often makes communication more difficult.
Dr. Poirier also looks at the external channel and how we communicate from within the organization to the outside world. He provides a link to the infamous Comcast customer call from Ryan Black who contacted the organization to cancel his account. This 18 minute recording is filled with all the things you shouldn’t do when attempting to assist a customer. Check it out by clicking on the ebook link below.
Dr. Poirier closes with an examination of the different settings or conditions under which communication takes place. He identifies the two types of workplace conflict - differing opinions and competing agendas. He also looks at how different work styles and personalities clash and what to do to resolve disputes when they arise. Dr. Poirier notes that this nearly constant push and pull can take up to 25% of a manager’s time. (To be honest, I thought it would be more.)
Meetings and Mediums
In the final chapter, Dr. Poirier examines that most-dreaded of work events - the meeting - and offers ways to improve it. He also helps us to choose the right medium for our message - oral or face-to-face, written, visual electronic and non-visual electronic - and examines briefly how digital media has complicated communication at work and risks further confusing the message.
In his ebook “Communications at Work: Understanding and Being Understood in the Organization.” Dr. Poirier offers us hope and a host of excellent suggestions to improve how we talk and how we listen to one another at work.