Communication templates are patterns that we all know and use together. When we initiate a communication using a recognized template, we expect responses within the bounds of that template. Most communication templates are innocuous — you can review some examples in "Communication Templates: I," Point Lookout for February 6, 2008.
And then there are the less innocuous communication templates. They create problems both for the initiator and the responder, though the problems are different for each.
For example, when one person insults another, many regard an equally insulting reply as "justified," whether or not returning another insult would be constructive in that context. The initiator's problem is the received insult; the responder's problem is that a reflexive insulting response might be less effective than a more diplomatic and powerful alternative.
Here are three examples of communication templates that are generally destructive.
- Anger in email
- The sender creates and sends an angry, snide, or abusive message; the recipient responds in kind. Back and forth they go, escalating in tone and risk.
- As either sender or recipient, making a phone call or a personal visit would be far more constructive. If that isn't possible, arranging one by email is a second-best choice. As the recipient, another option is ignoring the message, if it can be ignored. If the message is part of a pattern of sender-initiated angry exchanges, seek advice from your superiors. What if the sender is your superior? That will have to be another article.
- Excluding someone from a meeting or conversation in an obvious manner conveys a message. Within the template, the excluded fights to be included, or retaliates with a similar exclusion move, or accepts lowered status.
- Rarely does the excluded approach the excluder to talk about hurt feelings, or the harm to the organization or degraded morale. Although analogous conversations among peer confidants can be soothing, they're usually ineffective. On the other hand, almost any action taken by bystanders, on behalf of the excluded, would be helpful. When bystanders fail to act, they give the excluder a free pass to use the tactic again.
- Power flaunting
- Destructive communication
templates create problems
both for the initiator and
the responder, though
the problems are
different for each
- Reminding those over whom we have organizational power that we can exercise that power can be a form of threat. The subordinate role in this template is one of deference. We defer, we placate, we hide and we deliver only the good news.
- Power flaunting encourages slavish devotion and concealment of truth. It discourages risk taking, creativity, innovation, proactive damage control, and questioning the status quo. In organizational terms, it is one of the more expensive templates in use. Remaining in organizations where power flaunting is common is career-risky. Supervisors who notice power flaunting among subordinates would do well to intervene.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Decision-Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- Deliver the Headline First
- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes
frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That
might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the
headline first, and then offer the details.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation
- In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop
response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding,
toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
- Barriers to Accepting Truth: II
- When we work to resolve differences of opinion at work, we often depend on informing each other of what
we believe to be real facts. At times, to our surprise, our debate partners reject these offerings as
untrue, even when they're confirmed authoritatively. Why? And what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.