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:
- The Politics of the Critical Path: II
- The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion
date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience
the unique politics of the critical path.
- Getting Into the Conversation
- In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities
to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation
can be challenging for some.
- Before You Blow the Whistle: I
- When organizations know that they've done something they shouldn't have, or they haven't done something
they should have, they often try to conceal the bad news. When dealing with whistleblowers, they can
be especially ruthless.
- On Snitching at Work: II
- Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you
to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases,
which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought
than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection
of phrases and images to avoid.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 20: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: I
- One class of disruptions in meetings includes the tactics of stone-throwers — people who exploit low-cost tactics to disrupt the meeting and distract all participants so as to obstruct progress. How do they do it, and what can the meeting chair do? Available here and by RSS on March 20.
- And on March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the Chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can Chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
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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.