The dirty little secret about communication at work

Dirty Little Secret of Communicating at Work

This isn’t going to be a long or well-thought-out post, so I apologize in advance. It’s just something I was thinking about recently and wanted to articulate; one of my ideas going forward is to actually do a post where I get four or five people from different walks of life (spouse in a marriage, therapist, business leader, blue-collar worker, etc.) and talk to them about communication in their space. Maybe if I can get off my lazy ass and launch a podcast, that could be the first edition. (** Makes note to self**)

Here’s my basic philosophy here, before we get going: effective work communication is not balance-sheet ROI, and that’s where it dies in terms of anyone actually caring about it. It’s a soft skill. That means it’s something that’s nice-to-have, but it’s not a need-to-have; need-to-have skills in the business world are things tied directly to revenue and growth. Of course, we totally screw that up and think revenue-chasers have to be extroverts or something, when in fact that that’s not even true and introverts might run the business world in 15 years because with so much digital noise out there, the true key is going to be listening.

Point is: we have all these preconceived ideas about what and who is successful in business settings, and most of it is wrong. Communication is an apex predator form of that. Everyone bangs the drum on how important it is, but no one truly cares. I think I figured out the potential reason.

The crux of the argument: the meaning of “communication” varies widely.

Here’s an example.

A couple of years ago, I was working at this gig and mostly managing their website. (‘Twas PBS, if you want to know more specifically.) Like any larger website, they had a bunch of different partnerships and pages that were maintained by me, but the content/ideas came from someone else. Most of this was in the education space.

I remember some random Thursday, I got an e-mail from someone based in Maine. They had no signature on the e-mail and didn’t introduce themselves at the beginning (at some point in human evolution, people may finally learn the skill of contextualizing their e-mails, but don’t hold your breath). This person in Maine had a few things they wanted/needed:

  • Some webpage update
  • 3 new photos
  • A map link placed
  • An address changed

Thing is, this e-mail was totally devoid of context. I wasn’t even sure what page they were referring to, right? So here’s what I had to go do:

  • Google the person who e-mailed me
  • Figure out where they work/their interests
  • Match that to a page they might be working with us on
  • Go to the page
  • Make the edits that were defined
  • Figure out the address/map stuff they wanted and update that

See the dichotomy here?

I’m sure this person in Maine fired off that e-mail and said to someone above him, “Well, I just communicated our needs to the kid in NYC who deals with it!”

The thing is, nothing was actually communicated. I had to do about 30-60 minutes of work to figure out what was wanted, and — not to blow smoke up my own tuckus — but I only did that because I’m semi-proactive. Most people probably would have responded to that e-mail with another poorly-communicated e-mail, creating a ridiculous thread of 17 e-mails where no webpage actually gets updated.

So see, that’s the thing: the idea of what exactly “good communication” is varies so widely from X-person to Y-person that it’s really nearly impossible to get one office, or one series of offices, on the same page around it.

For example, here’s what I think is “good communication” via e-mail:

  • You introduce yourself, or re-introduce if the person already knows you
  • You explain the thing you’re working on
  • You explain how the thing you’re working on relates to that person
  • You explain what you need from them
  • You throw a date range for completion on it
  • You ask for follow-up information

In a meeting, here’s what I’d say:

  • Beforehand: What is the purpose of this meeting? Why couldn’t it just be an e-mail?
  • Beforehand: Here’s a bulleted overview of what we’re doing. Review it.
  • During: Brief intro, brief context, into what the goals are, discussion
  • During: Assign “action items” or “next steps” to people
  • During: Finish early (most meetings run long just because people want to fill the time window and talk around things)

Those are my ideas, but I’ve been working 13 years now and I can tell you many people don’t approach the idea of e-mail or meetings the way I do. And I don’t tend to initiate e-mail threads about work, or run meetings — so I’m basically a nobody in this discussion.

But that’s the dirty little secret: everyone is a special little snowflake, and everyone communicates differently and views “good communication at work” as a different thing. So how can we possibly get on the same page? Through senior leadership modeling? Oftentimes their e-mails and meeting calls to action are the most disjointed, because they’ve got the most other stuff going on.

Other ideas?

Ted Bauer


  1. Ted, I like the fact that you write out loud what many of us are thinking. Just signed on to get your updates. I need a balanced perspective to jolt me back to reality. Thanks, Eve

    • There’s a lot of bullshit out in the world, Eve … and much of it resides in quote-unquote “business journalism” or whatever. I’m just trying to slice right through it.

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