Face the music when you create communications problems

Don't let lack of impact assessment, misuse of influence, and lack of responsiveness damage your career.

When we honestly reflect, none of us can claim perfection when it comes to dealing with our customers, whether they come from inside our organization or from another one. Despite the lovely myth of "putting it all down at the door," we are all human beings with habits, pressures, concerns, and even the occasional psychological blind spot. Overcoming these problems requires us to face our own motivations and communication methods without accepting the comfort of "it's good enough."

I learned this lesson the hard way, strangely enough, while working on a government contract. It was an advice and consult gig, starting with a review of my client's methodology. At the same time, I coordinated work among three other teams on a larger mail rollout on the other side of the country. Like anyone still breathing, I also tried to juggle all of the concerns of home while traveling and working 80 hours a week.

Having learned a thing or two about how to manage communications streams before, I kept my clients straight this time. However, managing all of the various factors and egos involved with the two assignments began to take its toll on me psychologically. I also entered a bad patch at home, causing challenges in my personal life to become far more stressful than work. Beyond the damage that did to my marriage, it also pushed even more stress into my work.

My interactions with others became brusque. I started to use my influence within the organization to override others' ideas, rather than listening to them. Worse, I began to ignore the lesson I learned a long time ago: Always listen to your own people.

Things went on like this for a month, until it finally came to a head one day at my primary client site. It was in the middle of a meeting, when one of my client's architects made yet another mistake regarding sendmail configuration options. No, in the real world he simply did not understand SMTP or e-mail security. In whatever world I was working in at the time, he was a raving moron who deserved to be dressed down in front of his boss, his boss's boss, and the organization's chief information technology officer.

The gentleman in question immediately retaliated. He had, he claimed, raised this point with me three times over e-mail and once in a conversation. Why did I berate him about it now, when my lack of response indicated clearly that I simply didn't care?

After the meeting, I went back to my desk to seethe a bit. After getting that out of my system, I went back to examine my correspondence. My architect punching bag told the truth—and I needed to get a grip.

My three communication sins

So, after successfully making a jerk out of myself to my client and potentially my team members, I decided to step back and reassess my communications over the previous months. What I saw annoyed me as a person and shocked me as a manager. They boiled down to three basic sins: lack of impact assessment, misuse of influence, and lack of responsiveness.

As managers and leaders, our words carry enormous weight. This weight comes both from our authority over others and from our influence within the organization. It attaches itself to our communications whether we want it to or not; indeed, nothing we say or do can get away from it.

In my case, everyone knew that I had firing authority on the mail rollout and that my recommendations would be used to make firing decisions on the botched project my client called me in to review. One team knew I was angry about something and assumed it was part of their performance. The other one knew I was there to rain fire on them; every time I snapped, they put another rock in their "fear-of-being-fired container."

Fear is both sticky and corrosive; once it seeps into a team relationship, it can take months to clear. My carelessness cost me time, trust, and in the end, my team's best work.

Similarly, I noticed a disturbing trend in my messages. I learned early in my career that I do not always know best. In fact, I often do not. Technology changes, people come at things from different perspectives, and sometimes my team members just flat out know more about something than I do. It became apparent, as I reviewed my communications logs, that this went up as well as down in the team. For the last few weeks, my supervisors had tried to reach out to me. In whatever state I was in, I had reacted by calling in favors from the organization to "keep these people off my back while I took care of the situation." Not only was that an insult to the fine people I worked for, but it also expended an enormous amount of my political capital. And for what purpose? So that I could avoid receiving the help I obviously needed?

This created two problems for me. One, I needed to rebuild the relationships. Two, I needed to understand why I reacted so badly in the first place. Just because I had the ability to ignore their offers to help, and even to deflect them, did not mean I had either the right or, for that matter, the need. Was pride worth that much to me? Or had I fallen into some other sort of trap?

Reading and thinking, I realized something. I had made my work problems a proxy for the problems I faced at home. I did not want help because, on some subconscious level, I felt that if I could solve my problems at work, things would become better at home. When phrased like that, the idea is, naturally, ridiculous. Unfortunately, logical fallacy or not, the feeling it embodied did not go away. Having stated it, though, I could potentially mitigate it.

My third sin of communications, and one I still struggle with today, is what I call "turtling." When I get under enough stress, I huddle down and start working on some personal product (e.g., a report, a new server architecture, or whatever) and ignore my real job: communications. On one level, I say to myself: "If I can get this done, I'll let the person know what is going on and they will be happy to have a product." On another level, the thrill I feel from successfully creating something helps to lift the stress.

Those are both fine statements. Unfortunately, as a manager and a leader, my real job takes place in the realm of communications. In the end, it doesn't matter one way or the other if one of my reports comes in a day late. However, if my team fails to move forward because I decided to spend the day playing with cash flow, I may well lose my company contracts, or my client tens of thousands of dollars.

Moving forward

Recognizing my sins is one thing. Fixing them is another. I wish I could say that I've successfully fixed them all forever, but the truth is that all three still plague me from time to time.

However, I do generally use the following mitigating strategies:

  1. Before I communicate with someone, I force myself to review their current status and our relative positions. For most relationships, this takes no more than five seconds. It allows me to gauge the impact of my statements based on our relative positions and authority, and makes me conscious of my communications patterns.
  2. When I receive a communication requesting information or containing a suggestion, I first allow myself to feel whatever emotion it generates. Then, after a minute or three, I consider what the other person really wants. If I am not clear, or I think my own emotional response prevents me from being clear, I either ask for clarification or begin to use reflective listening.
  3. I include communications tasks on my list of things to do. In fact, my planner typically has more communications tasks than production tasks on any given day. This psychological trick allows me to treat communications as just another task and derive satisfaction from removing them from the list of things to do.

These actions do slow down my communications. Frankly, I'm proud of that. In today's business world, we often mistake speed for clarity and responsiveness for understanding.

What "sins of communication" do you suffer from, and how do you deal with them?

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