Communication is a catchall phrase for things that go wrong in companies and relationships. Unfortunately, the concept is too ambiguous to do anything constructive to fix it.
There are seven communication mistakes that lead to mis-understandings, and cause conflicts between co-workers, and bosses and their subordinates, which lead to low morale and toxic work environments. They are called the “The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Leadership Communication.” This article will address the least understood and most common of these leadership communication sins, a “lack of specificity.”
The “Law of Specificity” states, “the level to which communication lacks specificity is the level to which individuals are required to become mind readers, guess and assume. We all know what happens we assumptions are made.
Three of the most common areas for non-specific communication, which will be addressed in this article, are:
- Lack of Specific Details
- Lack of Specific Direction
- Lack of Specific Meaning
Lack of Specific Details
This is one of the most regularly violated. It’s a simple as leaving out dates, times, and locations, etc. when making a request. Even when one believes they are being specific, often times they are not.
A recent client, who has embraced adding specificity to his communication, and has effectively integrated this strategy into his senior leadership team’s culture, sent me this e-mail recently:
“I will be in the office working on two projects Thursday and Friday. I can take a break to speak with you, though. To be specific, can you call me at 11:30am?”
He thought he was being specific. You may, or should notice, that although he was specific regarding the “time” he wanted a tele-coaching session, he forgot that he gave me two days to choose from.
This type of communication happens all the time. Double check your communication for specificity and ask for clarification when you feel you need it.
Lack of Specific Direction
Another client, a CEO, had a habit of moving things off his desk by putting them in his office manager’s in-basket. Because of his position, the office manager assumed that if he was giving her something “it must be important.”
Every time she would immediately stop what she was doing to work on the latest thing he had given her.
This seems like a very proactive assistant getting things done. The challenge is that it was causing stress and frustration for the office manager, as it prevented her from accomplishing her other priorities.
The problem was solved in 30-seconds by asking the CEO if everything he put in her in-box was an urgent priority requiring immediate attention. He said, “no,” that he was just trying to get stuff off his desk.
Moving forward the CEO began putting notes on items identifying the required level of urgency. This allowed the office manager to prioritize and schedule those items around her work without having to assume and mind-read.
Lack of Specific Meaning
A wife recently accused her husband of leaving the front door to their home “open” when he came home from appointments during the day. Her meaning for the word “open,” as it pertained to the front door of the home, and the husband’s meaning were found to be very different.
Upon further discussion it was learned the wife meant the door was not “locked” so as to seal the door to keep the cold winter air from seeping through the weather stripping.
The husband’s meaning for an “open” front door was that the latch was not shut and the door was truly open so one could see outside.
Words have different meanings to different people in different contexts. Often times we assume the other person has our same point of reference. That is often not the case, causing misunderstandings and trust to break down.
A lack of specificity is just one of seven communication mistakes organizational leaders are making when interacting with their peers, direct reports and those they answer to such as shareholders and board members.