Communication: Nobody will understand a word you say

The stereotype of technical experts being bad at human interaction has been around since … well, about 1980, according to Google’s incredible n-gram viewer:

This idea that very logically-minded, rational, analytical thinkers are bad at relating to their fellow human beings is, of course… well, actually, broadly accurate.

While not everyone is as bad as Sheldon, the reason that character works so well amongst the geek population is that we all recognise a little of ourselves in him. The nuance, accoutrements and niceties of common, “real-world” interaction sometimes seem pointless, baffling or stupid to us.  Human communication is a system for transmission and reception of information which, in terms of fidelity, wouldn’t fare particularly well against two tin cans and a piece of string.

Every time you have to communicate with a fellow human being in your time as a software developer, there is a standard which serves to strip away subjectivity, reduce the signal to noise ratio and improve the consistency and quality of the shared understanding of that information. UML, use cases, flow charts, DFDs, ER diagrams – even code itself. These are the standard tools of trade for a developer and we like the certainty they provide.

The bad news: None of those tools exist in management. The effectiveness of your communication as a manager will be not be judged by any sort of objective standard.

“Right” and “wrong” become entirely subjective concepts. Not so long ago, at a company function, I was chatting with some of my closer colleagues – people who share a similar set of views, tolerances and ideologies. People who will be friends even if I leave the company.

One of them was talking himself up long and loud, as he often does. At one point in his monologue of self-adulation, I made the comment “You’re sort of like Jesus, really, only with less crucifixion.” I was joking of course and just doing my best to keep his ego somewhat in check.

The next morning, I had an email in my inbox from someone who had been standing nearby – not in the group, but just within earshot. He had taken offence to my mention of Jesus and the implied blasphemy against the holy word of his religion. He chastised my misunderstanding of the importance of the story of the crucifixion and offered to set me right.  I politely declined, with a very carefully worded email, offering apologies for any unintended offence.

Obviously I had no intention to offend with my comment, but simply by overhearing what I’d said, I’d managed to offend someone. In the world of management, this issue arises constantly.  The intent of the message behind what you say and the perception of the message by those who hear it may be poles apart, depending on a huge range of personal context factors. In this case, the issue was resolved between the two parties involved, but I have seen similar situations escalate to HR remediation and beyond, into the realm of legal action.

The fix: You know how you’ve been making fun all your life of ‘management-speak’? How managers hedge their words and don’t just come out and say what they mean? You’re going to need to do that. An understanding of language is going to be critical to how you are perceived.  Forwarding around “inappropriate” jokes or images just went from being a cheeky way to build camaraderie with your colleagues to a risky, potentially career-ending move.

You’ll need to build a variety of communication styles which you can employ, depending on the situation. When you’re speaking to large groups, you have to be most careful. Emails, read twice before sending – they are a permanent, archived and therefore retrievable record. You can drop your formality among close colleagues, but as my experience shows, even then you need to be careful who is standing nearby.

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