Imagine that you and a colleague (call him Chad) have conversed about a problem that has arisen and which affects you both. You explained what you understood about it and what you didn't, and what you could do about it and what you couldn't. Chad did the same. Eventually, you agreed on a solution. Or so you thought.
Next day, Chad texts you. He now believes that parts of the problem that you explained to him are unclear, or that the solution you both adopted is no longer suitable, or he's troubled by some irrelevant factor. He wants another meeting, so you agree to talk by phone. In a quick, ten-minute conversation you clear up all objections, he's happy again, and you're both back on track with the original deal.
But this was the third time this happened. What is it with this guy? Can't he remember what you tell him? Or does he just not listen? Or perhaps he's not smart enough for his job?
Miscommunication is a failure to communicate clearly. Misapprehension is a failure to comprehend or understand. Misremembering is a failure to recall accurately. Sometimes, one or more of those explanations for post-agreement confusion do apply, but after someone reaches a certain level of responsibility in an organization, those explanations become improbable. Working in a complex, fast-paced, knowledge-oriented workplace requires a decent memory, good listening skills, significant intelligence, and an ability to learn quickly — and retain what you learn. So what else can be happening?
One possibility is what I call counter-communication. Counter-communication is communication from a third party who contradicts or otherwise undermines something previously communicated between the parties to the agreement. In other words, someone else might be talking to Chad.
We tend to We tend to assume that when
we come to an agreement with
others, and the basis of the
agreement is clear to all,
the agreement will standassume that when we come to an agreement with others, and the basis of the agreement is clear to all, the agreement will stand. We tend to assume that the parties won't be conferring with anyone hostile to the agreement, who might not grasp the issues, or who might have a personal agenda, or who might intentionally omit or misrepresent facts so as to call the agreement into question. We tend to assume that counter-communication will not occur.
Sometimes counter-communication happens. If it has happened to you, assume that agreements will be exposed to counter-communication. Anticipate the counter-communicators by providing your collaborators with re-enforcement in advance. Be explicit. For example, if one of the issues is whether Engineering will cooperate, you could say, "Chad, that's right, we are assuming that Engineering can provide that information by the 15th. I spoke with Anna in Engineering, and she says they already have it and that they'll send it tomorrow." By giving your partners information they can use to refute the counter-communicator, your own further direct involvement might not be required. It's nice when it works out that way. Keep in mind, though, that next time, your counter-communicator might anticipate your anticipating. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: Credit Appropriation
- Managers and supervisors who take credit for the work of subordinates or others who feel powerless are
using a tactic I call Credit Appropriation. It's the mark of the unsophisticated political operator.
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- The Artful Shirker
- Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around
them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
- Workplace Anti-Patterns
- We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life,
including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
- Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can
also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve
our ability to prepare for adverse events?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 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.