Learning From Your Communication Mistakes

Being in charge doesn’t mean you have to sound in charge.

You will make many communication mistakes in your formative role as someone responsible for the work of others. People are complex. The process of communicating with others is filled with opportunities for mistakes, misfires and misperceptions.  It takes time and more than a few mistakes to recognize your need to understand the communication preferences of your team members and to learn to tailor your approach.

Here are four communication lessons learned the hard way:

1. Trying too hard to sound in charge. One first-time supervisor perceived that part of being in charge of the department meant showing strength with a commanding tone in all interactions. His brusque style was off-putting to a group that prided itself on team cohesion and a track record of great results. When apprised of the tension his style was creating he sat down with the group, apologized and adopted a more supportive and empathetic tone. He learned that being in charge didn’t mean he had to sound in charge at all times.

2. Misjudging communication preferences of your team members. Another common mistake is to misread the amount of communication interaction people desire from their supervisor. Ask an independent person too many questions on a regular basis and they will perceive you as micromanaging. Give another person ample space when they really desire regular contact and feedback, and you’ll be perceived as distant and uncaring. Pay attention to what works when communicating with your team members. Accelerate the process by asking about their preferences for contact and communication. They’ll be impressed that you cared enough to ask.

3. Abusing feedback. Excessively sugar-coated or watered-down feedback doesn’t help anyone. I see this problem regularly with new managers uncomfortable in delivering constructive feedback (i.e., the type that is driving for improvement). Instead of constructing a clear and crisp discussion that identifies the behavior, explains the implications of the behavior and invites a true discussion on how to improve it, they strive to make themselves comfortable by surrounding the message in praise and diluted terms. No one benefits from this type of feedback. (I am cringing as I write this, recalling a number of my early and awkward attempts at this process.)

If you are uncomfortable delivering constructive feedback, ask to attend a training course or seek out one of the many resources on feedback and practice making your positive and constructive feedback focused, specific and usable.

4. Unleashing a torrent of ideas. Another manager I coached was filled with ideas on how to improve departmental processes and workflow, and she was relentless in telling people how to change their work. She was quickly perceived as an overbearing micromanager, and people worked hard to avoid her. Once she became adept at asking team members for their ideas on how to streamline processes and asking “what if?” questions based on her own ideas, the team began to respond with creativity and enthusiasm. She accomplished her desired results and gained team support and trust in the process with a simple shift from telling to asking.

A mentor of mine once offered, “You’ll go far as you are able to communicate.” At the time, I thought it was an awkward phrase, and I didn’t think much of it. Looking in the rearview mirror of three decades of leading others, I wish I had tattooed it on my forearm the day he said it. Your ability to communicate with others, to appeal to their hearts and minds and engage their energy in pursuit of common goals is what your role is all about. Starting today and continuing everyday hereafter, focus on strengthening your ability to communicate with others. This critical skill will take you far.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Management Excellence blog.

(Image via JrCasas/Shutterstock.com)