There are a number of communication mistakes that lead to mis-understandings, and cause conflicts between co-workers, and bosses and their subordinates which lead to low morale and toxic work environments. The least understood and most common of the sins is communicating with a lack of specificity.
The “Law of Specificity” states, “the level to which communication lacks specificity is the level to which individuals are required to become mind readers.” Three of the most common areas for non-specific communication are:
- Lack of Specific Details
- Lack of Specific Direction
- Lack of Specific Meaning
Lack of Specific Details
This is one of the most regularly violated. It’s a simple as leaving out dates, times, and locations, etc. when making a request. Here is a real workplace example between a boss and his direct report:
“Steve, I need you to get me details of all of our vendor and sub-contractor relationships by the end of next week so I can evaluate them for next year’s budgets I’m submitting.”
This request seems straight forward, but Steve did not meet the expectations of his boss.
Steve took “the end of next week” to mean by “the end of the day next Friday.” His boss meant that he was submitting his budget proposal by the end of the day the following Friday and therefore needed Steve’s information by the first thing Friday morning, or preferably Thursday.
As you might imagine, this caused a conflict between the boss and his direct report. It wasn’t the first time. To improve their communication both were coached on using more specificity in future requests.
You will notice that a statement like the one below is much more specific:
“Steve, I need to submit our budget proposal by the end of next week. So I need a detailed report on our vendor and sub-contractor relationships by Thursday at 5 p.m. This way I can use those figures in my proposal, which I will be finalizing next Friday. Based on your present priorities is that a timeframe you can make happen?”
This request has much more specificity. It is also very respectful of the other party’s priorities. It doesn’t assume that he or she can just drop everything to fulfill this request. It allows for honest and open negotiation so both parties feel supported and expectations can be met.
Lack of Specific Direction
In this situation my client, a CEO, had a habit of moving things off his desk by putting them in his office manager’s in-basket.”
Because of his position, the office manager assumed that if he was giving her something “it must be important.” Every time she would immediately stop what she was doing to work on the latest thing he had given her.
On the surface this seems like very proactive assistant getting things done. The challenge is that it was frustrating the office manager as it prevented her from getting other priorities accomplished. She was becoming stressed by her inability to keep up with her workload and that of her boss.
I solved the problem in 30-seconds. I asked my client, the CEO, if everything he put in her in-box was an urgent priority that required immediate attention.
He said, “no,” that he was just trying to get stuff off his desk.
I coached him to put a note on the top of any item identifying the level of urgency the item required. This allowed the office manager to prioritize and schedule those items around her work without having to assume and mind-read.
Lack of Specific Meaning
My wife recently accused me of leaving the front door to our home “open” when I come from appointments during the day. Her meaning for the word “open,” as it pertained to the front door of our home, and mine are very different.
Upon further discussion we learned she meant that the door was not “locked” so as to seal the door to keep the cold winter air from seeping through the weather stripping. My meaning for an ?open? front door was that the latch was not shut and the door was truly open so you could see outside.
Words have different meanings to different people in different contexts. Often times we assume the person has our same point of reference. That is often not the case causing misunderstandings and trust to break down.
Recommended Books on Business Communication:
- Writing That Works; How to Communicate Effectively In Business
- Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence
- Business Communication: Developing Leaders for a Networked World
- Business Communication: In Person, In Print, Online
- Business Writing: What Works, What Won’t
Skip Weisman works with organizational leaders to improve personnel, productivity and profits by helping them “Create a Champion Organization” one that communicates effectively and takes action with commitment towards a shared compelling vision. His latest White Paper Report is “The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Leadership Communication” available free at www.HowToImproveOrganizationalCommunication
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