We’ve all indulged in magical thinking. Why else would so many people rush to buy tickets when the Powerball jackpot swells to $400M, even though their chances of winning are dramatically slimmer? How many people believe that if they lose that last 5 pounds, the person of their dreams will magically sweep them off their feet? And what project manager hasn’t at least occasionally harbored the illusion that one well-placed communication can motivate a team to leap tall buildings in a single bound?
Whether running a project team or managing a group, most team leaders assume that their communications skills are pretty decent. (After all, they wouldn’t have come this far in their careers without some level of communications mastery, right?) So when they send emails, post documents, ping people on IM, or lead team meetings, they imagine–on some level–that people are ready, willing and able to hear what they have to say. Magical thinking? You bet.
Joining me this month is Don Wynes, my friend and colleague of more than 20 years, who is an influential process improvement leader and author of a new book about virtual project management. Here we share some common instances of wishful thinking, or irrationally optimistic assumptions, which often lead to frustration and disappointment for leaders and their teams. As a counterpoint, we provide a few tips to ground that wishful thinking more in reality, resulting in communications that actually may be nothing short of magical.
- Myth #1: As soon as you issue a communications (email, text, IM, etc.), people will drop everything. People will not only read it, but they’ll respond immediately exactly the way you’d hoped. Tips: Realize that some people are bombarded with so many “urgent” communications, that they have found ways of separating the wheat from the chaff that might mean your “urgent” missives are automatically routed into a “to be read someday if ever” folder. Help them (and yourself) by only sending communications to those who really need it. CC: the rest, or better yet, leave them out of the loop altogether if you can. Establish an attention-getting protocol to use in your subject line, as well as in the first line of your message, to make sure it gets read. Requiring a read receipt can be of some help, but only if people agree to send it.
- Myth #2: You have been so thorough that people will get the complete picture immediately. You have left no room for ambiguity by including every detail imaginable. After reading this four-screen email, people can’t possibly have any questions. Tips: Err on the side of being succinct. Use bullets, boldface and/or underlines, sparingly, to highlight important actions or due dates. Many popular blogs and magazines (think: Real Simple) parcel out content in small chunks so readers can find what they need easily and quickly. Include links or attachments with more details for those who need or want them (and realize that not everyone does!). Let people know where they can get questions answered.
- Myth #3: People take great effort to interpret your communications. They immediately understand the context of your message and appreciate all of your carefully-constructed nuances. They read each word with interest, and when they’re done, they have the same understanding of and appreciation for your subject as you do. Tips: Consider the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) in all your communications. Will the busiest person on your To: list see the action item you expect them to complete? Does the audience member who is only marginally involved in your presentation topic get the point you’re trying to make? Spell it out for them clearly and relate your message to factors important to them.
- Myth #4: Everyone understands everything the same way. Even though some people may come from different cultures, countries or organizations, everyone’s on the same team, right? And if they’re on the same team, they have got to be on the same page. It’s getting too late for any disconnects to stall your work. Tips: If you really can’t afford any disconnects, then take the time up front to test for shared understanding before you go any further. Start with the aspects of your team’s work that require explicit, shared agreement to ensure success. For example, ask each person to paraphrase or interpret the meaning of a project goal or scope statement from their perspective, either via a team meeting, 1:1, or in writing. If there are widely differing and conflicting points of view, it’s time to bring the team together for a reset.
- Myth #5: Requiring Read Receipts on your emails shows that people got your message. People are busy and don’t always have time to acknowledge your emails, so they really appreciate you for asking for Read Receipts on all of your messages. They never feel that this suggests you don’t trust them to treat your communication with respect and courtesy. Tip: Be careful you aren’t sending unintended messages by tracking your audience’s behavior. If you were going to deliver the same message by hand, would you ask for a signature confirming it was delivered? There are certainly situations where this is appropriate and necessary, but be aware of the full set of consequences of telling your recipient “I want proof that you got this.”
- Myth #6: A lack of response signals agreement or acceptance. Silence is consensus. You have let people know that they can contact you if they have questions or disagree, so of course, everyone must like the idea. Time to move on to the next new thing! Tips: Never, ever assume that silence means anything other than silence, especially when you work virtually and can’t see facial expressions. Silence can mean many things: disinterest, disbelief, misunderstanding, multitasking, or in fact, agreement (or disagreement). If you can’t have a real-time conversation where you ask people for their candid opinions, try setting up an online conference area and ask people to weigh in, making responses anonymous if warranted. Or even simpler, you can ask for one-line email or IM response where people state their opinion with a brief rationale, so you can be fairly sure they understand what they have agreed (or disagreed) with.
- Myth #7: You have people’s undivided attention in team meetings if the topic is really important. No one will multitask or drift. They will be completely riveted during the whole conversation, shutting down all other apps. Tips: The topic may be important to you, but the siren song of a new email, the lure of a competing project, or an IM from a colleague may be even more You can’t stop people from multitasking, especially if they believe that no one is paying attention to their half-hearted participation. But you can build in opportunities for people to multitask “on task.” That is, find ways to enable people to contribute to the meeting goals by eliciting their responses or ideas (verbally or using an online meeting tool of some kind) throughout the meeting. Yes, this requires a lot more time and energy when planning your meeting, but imagine the results when all of that persistent multitasking is actually reaping benefits for all!
- Myth #8: We don’t have time for real-time conversations. And besides, we have so many other ways to communicate asynchronously. Think of all the complaints about too many meetings! Plus, finding the best time zone for everyone is just such a hassle. Tips: Plan your team conversations with a purpose in mind. Yes, you can post or email status reports instead of using valuable meeting time. But consider the kind of conversations that are important to discuss amongst the team, such as sharing successes or failures, lessons learned, barriers to be removed, new tips and tools, burning questions, tough issues, milestones to celebrate, etc. Insist that all participate via video to encourage more focused attention. Record and post meetings in a shared location where team members can ask or answer questions later on. This helps extend the sharing and mutual learning without having to extend meeting time.
- Myth #9: We don’t really need to bring people together. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and we’re all collaborating fairly well already. When we need to see each other, we use video, which serves pretty much the same purpose as being together. Tips: No matter how sophisticated the meeting technology or how well-run your meetings, nothing–nothing–replaces the magic that can happen when people have a chance to experience each other in “real life.” It’s during those times between formal conversations, at breaks, lunch or dinner, in the gym, on the dance floor, that bonds are forged and relationships are cemented. Yes, you can cultivate great relationships when working virtually, but it takes more skill and time than most team leaders have. When scheduling your face-to-face get-togethers, think in terms of at least 80-90% active participation, where people have a chance to share, contribute, brainstorm, and learn from each other. Save the presentations for asynch viewing at another time, if you in fact ever need them at all – another assumption to challenge!
Ah, if only we could wish our way to creating communications that would command people’s attention, coax them to respond with alacrity, and inspire them to move to action. All the wishing in the world won’t make it so. But, if you take a look at some of your implicit assumptions and start by changing just one or two things about how you communicate, you can work wonders, with no magic required.
Communications Guidelines in Times of Change – white paper by Nancy Settle-Murphy
The Credible Company by Roger D’Aprix (or any book this master of communications has ever written!)