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8 Team Communication Mistakes to Avoid at Work

by: Shiv Sharma

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – G.B. Shaw

While that might be the biggest problem, it’s not the only one. The list of mistakes in communication is as long as its benefits. And only by addressing the mistakes, you can reap the rewards of effective communication. 

Let’s have a look at 8 team communication mistakes to avoid at work. Minor behavioral changes can help overcome each of them.

1. Arguing in emails/messages

This holds true for both starting and engaging in an argument. When we receive a seemingly offensive message, it compels us to respond passionately. Even more so when others are looped in the message. Resiting that urge is a powerful skill. 

We lose behavioral signals in written communication and that makes it prone to misinterpretation. When we partake in written arguments, we also risk such misinterpretation by others. The worst part is, once the message is sent, it becomes engrained in the company’s folklore. And there is no way to take it back or dispel it from memory. 

So how to deal with it? Cynthia Measom in her blog suggests taking the conversation offline. Call the person directly and then react in a straightforward yet professional way. Direct conversation is a lot more effective in resolving conflicts than messages, 

2. Being candid without empathy

Modern workplaces celebrate candid conversations. They are getting popular in even cultures that are traditionally associated with more indirect communication styles. This is good. In fact, what better way to express yourself better than to be succinct and to the point. 

At the same time, there has also been a big push for EQ over IQ mentality. Sometimes this can seem counterintuitive to being candid. It isn’t. 

Problems arise when one speaks their mind without regard for the listener with an assumption that such behavior is candid. In other words, being ultra candid. Being direct without empathy is not very constructive. 

This sentiment is embodied in the Radical Candor management philosophy. 

source: radicalcandor.com

The model states that in order to give effective feedback, empathy and candidness must go together. Otherwise, you risk being obnoxiously aggressive or displaying ruinous empathy. 

If your impulsive feedback is “Damn Josh! Why can’t you do anything I ask on time?”, it’s better to tweak it and say “You need to adhere to deadlines better.”. It’s still direct, but not overly aggressive. 

3. Not asking enough good questions

This is common among young professionals suffering from imposter syndrome. I have been guilty of it in the early stages of my career. Out of the fear of seeming vulnerable or stupid, we sometimes don’t question things that we don’t understand. 

Such behavior sparks numerous cases of miscommunication at work. Too often, we don’t ask questions believing that they will annoy the speaker. In fact, questions are the clearest way to signal interest. 

It’s also important to ask the right kind of questions. We often ask questions that are leading, limiting, or flat-out condescending. The quality of questions is determined by the amount of bias in it. 

For example, “Isn’t the only reasonable thing to do is implement Plan A?” reeks of bias towards Plan A. It manipulates the listeners to go with it, especially if the questioner is in a position of authority. A better question would be “Which plan should we implement and why?”. This allows listeners to express their opinions without any pressure.

4. Giving personal feedback

When you direct your feedback towards the subject rather than the object, it becomes personal. At work, such feedback carries risk. Professional feedback focuses on the behavior rather than the individual. 

For example, telling someone “You are careless” will not evoke a constructive response. Instead, focus on the instance when they displayed careless behavior and have a specific discussion. Harvard Business Review has an excellent graphic that offers suggestions for making feedback more constructive. 

source: hbr.org

5. Prioritizing harmony over conflict

Conflicts are unpleasant. The instinctive human reaction to avoid them is understandable. But a culture of conflict avoidance is as harmful as a culture of incessant conflicts.

It’s good to aim for harmony, but not at the cost of avoiding difficult conversations. James Kerr in his Inc post mentions that conflict avoidance leads to the departure of the best and brightest talent. It breeds mediocrity and encourages behaviors that don’t challenge the status quo.  

Successful teams encourage diverse opinions and train themselves in addressing conflicts in an impersonal manner. 

6. Always equating personal experiences

When a teammate opens up about a problem or vents their thoughts, they are looking for someone who can listen. If they want opinions or similar anecdotes, they’ll ask. In such situations, we often tend to share our personal experiences as a sign of empathy. 

Kat Boogaard in her article in Fast Company writes that attempting to equate your personal experiences, especially when they aren’t relevant to your colleagues’ situation can come across as condescending. 

Instead, she recommends active listening, i.e. listening with full attention and not with an aim to retort. A colleague in distress will value it more than anything else. 

7. Equating more communication with better communication

Harlan Miller once said, “Often the difference between a successful marriage and a mediocre one consists of leaving about three or four things a day unsaid.” You can apply the same principle at work as well. Of course, this doesn’t mean avoiding important conversations. But we all know that most conversations and meetings at work aren’t that important. Just look at these statistics

Still, our response to better alignment at work tends to be more meetings. This further diminishes the value of meetings. A good rule of thumb is to not schedule a recurring meeting until you’ve dismissed one. 

Team collaboration tools have empowered teams to track work and get updates without having meetings. Better communication doesn’t always require more face time. 

8. Not knowing when to stop talking

In high-pressure situations such as meetings and presentations, it’s a common behavior to fill the silence with ramblings. We all know and on occasions have been the people who only stop their chain of thought when interrupted. Even if it means repeating what we just said. Silence is only awkward if we believe it to be. 

Knowing when to stop speaking is a powerful skill. If used well, it can even elevate your ideas and bring more clarity to conversations. 

On that note, I’ll end my chain of thought. What are some most common team communication mistakes that you have noticed at work?

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