Wait, What? How to Use Workplace Culture to Communicate Effectively

By Carole Wehn

Have you heard someone say in a meeting, “At the end of the day, our EBITDA should be in the range of $1-1.5 million?” Or have you emailed a junior staffer to find out when they will finish a project, only to receive a reply of “TBH, IDK”?

In both cases, the communicator likely thought their meaning was obvious. Yet did everyone in the meeting understand that “at the end of the day” didn’t mean literally 5:00 p.m. that business day? Or that EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization? Did you seek out a Gen Z employee to translate your email “To be honest, I don’t know?”

We spend most of our work life communicating. Arguably, it’s the hardest thing we do. We intend to be clear when we’re speaking or writing to someone. But we don’t always take the time to think through what we want to convey. And we make erroneous assumptions about the recipient’s level of comprehension. As a result, the message often doesn’t get through.

A survey by writing tool provider Grammarly and the Harris Poll found that 86 percent of knowledge workers experience communication issues at work. And over 80 percent of business leaders worry about communication effectiveness in the new hybrid or remote workplace.

So imagine the benefits to an organization when employees strive to communicate to be understood. That kind of behavior can be ingrained in your company culture.

How Poor Communication Affects the Workplace

Miscommunication negatively impacts productivity, morale, and growth. For example, employees may waste time and miss deadlines because they don’t understand directions. Customers can walk away if they don’t understand your products and services. In addition, the Grammarly/Harris Poll survey found that ineffective communication also contributes to employee frustration and stress.

Author Dr. Tessa West observed in a Wall Street Journal article:

“The busier we get, the more likely it is that we shed important stress-reducing details in our communications with people, especially over email. We get good at explaining the “what” (a meeting on Thursday) but not the “why” (to talk about your request for more days off).”

Her solution to avoid inducing stress: “Hit people over the head with blinding clarity.”

The shift to remote work has also hampered communication. Most communication among employees now happens digitally. Here also, the focus has been on the “what” – the technological tools to enable meetings and collaboration.

For instance, you probably gave workers technical instructions on using Zoom, Slack, and Teams. But did you address the “how” – making sure all participants were involved and had the opportunity to join the discussion? Too often, teammates struggle to read faces in little tiles to determine whether their colleagues understand what they are saying.

Like any other skill, communicating to be understood takes practice. There are three primary areas of focus:

1. Know your audience

2. Avoid jargon

3. Keep it simple

Know Your Audience

The purpose of communication is to convey a message to someone else. It could be as simple as “good morning” or “thank you.” Or it could include relaying complex work specifications. Either way, communication is only successful when the intended recipient gets the message and understands it.

As David J. Friedman, author and CEO of CultureWise, wrote in Fundamentally Different, “Communicating to be understood begins with shifting the focus away from ourselves and to our audience.” Communication is not about letting everyone know you’re in charge or showing them how smart you are. It’s about serving the other person.

Yet so many people use flowery language and obscure terms when a simple word will suffice. Why? Friedman commented, “Sadly, I believe the answer is selfishness – a focus on ourselves and our agenda versus the audience and their needs.”

Some people think that their vocabulary indicates their level of education or sophistication. But remember that aircraft engineers coined the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) acronym to remind staff that systems work best if they aren’t overly complicated.

It can be challenging to put a complicated topic into simple terms. But having that ability is generally a better indicator of someone’s mastery of the language than their use of big words.

Tailor Your Message to Your Audience

Consider three things before you say or write anything:

  1. Consider who’s on the receiving end and think about the best way to connect with that specific group or individual.
  2. Use words and phrases they’ll understand to help them grasp what you’re saying.
  3. Communicate at their level of understanding.

Following these guidelines doesn’t mean you have to speak or write at a fifth-grade level. But you need to consider the recipient and their relationship to you and the topic. For example, are you sending an email to a customer? State the reason for your email and your intended result. Do you need them to do anything? Is it time-sensitive? Spell it out without using internal shorthand or jargon.

When speaking with a colleague in the finance department, it’s okay to refer to P&L or EBIT. But someone in manufacturing may not hear those terms all the time. So don’t assume the other person knows what your words mean.

Choose Your Means of Communication Wisely

Some people like to receive emails or memos so they have time to consider the issue without needing to respond immediately. Others prefer the phone or face-to-face discussion. Think about the most effective way to get through to the audience you’re addressing.

The topic can also determine the best way to convey it. For example, if you need detailed information from a team member, do you catch them on the way to the cafeteria or send an email?

Putting the request in writing helps ensure the recipient clearly understands the information you need and when. A conversation can be enjoyable and allows for dialogue. But the team member may not remember what you need from them by the time they return to their desk.

The Importance of Being Inclusive

Behavioral analytics firm Quantified Communications researched the behaviors that make speakers seem inclusive. They reported in the Harvard Business Review that inclusive leaders “make an effort to put their audiences first and adapt messages to the needs, values, interests, and demographic makeup of the people who are listening.”

Good leaders know where their audience is coming from, so they tailor their messages. They appear to be conversing with their audience rather than talking down to them. Understanding the audience develops trust in the speaker, which is key to fostering an inclusive environment.

Avoid Jargon

Have you said, “We need to rationalize our operations.” Sure, it sounds kinder than “we’re going to have to let some people go,” but the word “rationalize” also means to justify or defend. Did your audience understand your intent?

If you’ve asked a staff member if they had the “bandwidth” to take on a new project, you likely weren’t referring to their internet connection. Looking for some “leverage”? Do you mean financing requirements or control in a situation? Your audience may need further context or explanation. While these may be common work expressions, there are usually simpler alternatives.

Ensure the receiver understands how you are using business jargon.

Many terms cross over between common and business usage. “Pivot” is an example of a word frequently used during the pandemic. Companies needed to change direction and strategy amidst business closures and supply chain disruptions, hence the need to “pivot.” And the term “supply chain” moved from the manufacturing and distribution world to everyday consumer discussion once we encountered supply shortages. Suddenly everyone knew what a supply chain was.

There’s also lots of work jargon that doesn’t make sense to an outsider. “Let’s not boil the ocean here.” “I’m out of pocket tomorrow.” “There’s a lot of moving parts on this project.” These expressions may be commonplace in workplace talk. But avoid their use with customers and newcomers who may be clueless about what you’re saying.

A survey by American Express OPEN found that almost two-thirds of workers use jargon at least two to three times per week. And over a quarter admit they use it daily.  What’s startling is that close to 90 percent of respondents admitted to pretending to understand office jargon—even when they don’t know what it means. So don’t even though you hear staff using common parlance, don’t assume they comprehend its meaning.

What Does That Mean?

The shorthand we use in texting is finding its way into business communication. While most people may understand “K” and “LOL,” not everyone may know that “IDK” means “I don’t know.” Avoid using these abbreviations in business communication. You aren’t getting through if the recipient is scratching their head trying to figure out what the letters stand for.

A company’s culture determines the acceptability of texting in the workplace. For example, in some organizations, it may be acceptable to text for quick communication between colleagues. But by its nature, texting interrupts the worker when the phone buzzes. So, given the intrusive and casual nature of texting, it’s best to avoid its use with customers unless they specifically request it.

Keep It Simple

Use the simplest possible terms and explanations in both oral and written communication. If it seems most appropriate to use industry or company-specific acronyms or terminology, define them the first time you use them. Even with internal audiences, don’t assume everyone understands your company’s lingo.

Digital marketer Dan Scalco wrote in Success,

“Clear-cut communication increases the likelihood that people will comprehend and take action on whatever you’re asking from them. It’s better to over-explain something than to leave room for misunderstanding.

Whenever you’re delivering an assignment or asking for assistance from someone, focus on providing simple, actionable, and specific instructions.

Don’t end a conversation until you’re sure the other person understands your objectives and how to achieve them.”

Subheadings and bullet points are helpful ways to improve clarity in your writing. Not only does it help the writer condense what’s most important, but it also helps the reader visually focus.

Companies have preferred means of communication during meetings. Some organizations favor the 100-slide PowerPoint deck. Jeff Bezos is known for requiring his managers to have silent meetings to read six-page memos together.

These approaches may work in specific environments, but the general rule is to keep things simple so that the message gets through and is clearly understood.

A Culture of Clear Communication

Your company’s approach to communication is only one element of its culture. And while culture grows organically in an organization, it’s optimized when shaped by its leadership. And a culture where employees focus on communicating to be understood can be created.

At CultureWise, we help business leaders develop, drive, and sustain high-performing cultures using our turnkey operating system. David Friedman created this method based on the leadership lessons he learned and taught in his decades as an award-winning CEO, speaker, author, and consultant. Get a free excerpt from his book Culture by Design, which outlines the CultureWise approach.

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