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

  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
  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?