The Perils of Fuzzy Communication
I have worked with individuals and teams for many years, and have always been puzzled by how a group of individuals with core values of honesty and integrity can come together as a team and produce mistrust. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it happens all the time. Mistrust is one of the major dysfunctions on most teams.
The “light bulb” went off for me a few years ago when I realized the most common source of mistrust was not lack of integrity but rather poor and “fuzzy” communication. Certainly some mistrust comes from overt dishonesty or people not doing what they say they will do; however, I now believe that most mistrust on a team, in an organization, or family emanates from unclear and sloppy communication.
An example of this is an individual executive I once coached whose team generally mistrusted him and thought him a person who lacked integrity. Various assessments conducted with his peers and direct reports confirmed this. When I began to meet with him it was obvious to me that this person placed integrity at the top of his core values and was shocked that his peers and direct reports thought otherwise. After getting to know him better I became convinced that lack of integrity was not the problem, poor and “fuzzy” communication was!
I believe there are four reasons for “fuzzy” communication: 1) to avoid conflict, 2) good communication is difficult and takes time, 3) others may disapprove of us, and 4) it helps keep our options open and avoid accountability.
“Fuzzy” communication is destructive to our relationships with others and ultimately has much to do with the results we produce. If “fuzzy” communication is the problem, then clear and effective communication is the solution.
Clear communication begins with developing the competency of empathy. Research has shown that 7% of communication is verbal, 35% the tone and tenor of our voice, and 55% body language, particularly our facial expressions. This data creates awareness of not only what a person is saying verbally but what they are saying non-verbally. We should ask and probe these non-verbal signals in order to understand what the other person is actually feeling or saying.
Every communication interaction should seek to have six questions answered: who, what, when, where, why, and how. This is a habit we can develop and have as a mindset in all communication. In attempting to answer these questions there are several actionable steps:
Don’t make assumptions
Achieve clarity about the “big picture” or end goals
Share what you know
Ask questions, dig, and probe for what the other person knows
Continually play back for the other person what you heard them say
Clarify or validate exchange of information
Do not make or accept “fuzzy” commitments
Take responsibility quickly when commitments cannot be met
Make amends and new agreements
The essence of leadership is acting with integrity and generating trust in your followers, and this is not possible without clear and effective communication. Good communication is a habit, and there is no excuse for not developing and practicing it.
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