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North Central Business Journal News

(April 2001 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

      Recently a reader contacted me with the following problem:
           My employees are driving me up the wall.  We are swamped with work,  and I tell them what needs to be done, and then I discover that they didn't do it.  Why can't they just do as I tell them? 

      Research indicates that most people do not actually hear what is said to them.  Research also indicates that speakers assume listeners understood what the speakers intended to say, which is actually rare.  What happens with verbal communication is that speakers use "shorthand" words to describe their ideas, which are quite clear in their heads, but which may not be as clear to those who are hearing.  At the same time, listeners jump from the beginning of what is said and complete the thought as they expect it to be completed, and then start thinking of how to respond.  In other words, they are not actually listening beyond the first few words.

      This pattern is made worse because a large number of managers think as they talk, so that what they say at the end is different from where they started talking.  However, they remember what their conclusion was, and expect the listeners to respond to that conclusion.  If the listening employees completed the original thought, they are at a different place.  Miscommunication has occurred.

      To counter this normal human tendency, managers can check that the employees heard what the manager said by asking the employees to restate it.  By the same token, it is helpful for the manager to restate what an employee says before responding to it.  This ensures that the initial message has been communicated and understood.  It does not mean that the listener agrees with what the speaker said.

      At first, this tactic feels strange and appears to be time-consuming since everything gets restated twice.  But it actually reduces time because there will be fewer instances where work gets done incorrectly or with the wrong priority.  With practice, this tactic becomes a natural communication style, and communication flows faster.

      It is also wise to follow verbal discussions with a brief written record of the conversation.  This initially appears to be time-consuming, but it reduces the lost time caused by miscommunication.

      When employees appear to be ignoring the manager's directives, managers often get irritated with lazy, incompetent employees, which may result in harsh words and increased tension.  It is helpful, however, to assume that the employee intends to do a good job and simply did not understand what was expected.  The manager then provides the directive in writing and checks to be sure the employee understands what is expected.  If possible, explaining why will also help the employee follow the directive as desired.  This tactic keeps defensiveness down and increases the likelihood that the employee will now understand what was said and follow through on it.  Communication has occurred.

       If the employee continues to disregard an order, the manager then needs to confront the employee with the written record of the previous communication and show the employee that the directive has not been followed.   Dealing with this situation will be the topic of next month’s column.

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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