One of my favorite phrases in Latin is “non-sequitur” which means “it does not follow.” I like this word because it is how I describe a great deal of office communication. You probably have your own word for some emails that arrive in your inbox, but to illustrate my point let’s use this example:
You are the project manager for automating an accounts payable system called Omega and you send an email like this to four different account payable managers:
To: Omega project stakeholders
Re: Phase 2 of Omega project
Please read the attached project plan.
If you agree with your assigned roles and responsibilities, please reply with your approval by May 1, 2020.
These are the replies you receive:
From: Project manager #1
I don’t think we are on Phase 2 of the project yet. Let me circle back.
From: Project manager #2
From: Project manager #3
This may be too ambitious of a plan.
From: Project manager #4
It is up to your discretion, but I don’t think this reflects what we talked about at the last meeting.
All the responses listed above are non-sequiturs, except project manager #2’s response. Your only choice at this point is to hold another meeting (the second one you have had since launching this project) at another day and time (when everyone is available which looks to be a month from now). The Omega project stalls and you are left holding the bag when someone higher up asks for its status.
I loathe miscommunication because it impedes the momentum that keeps projects moving forward. It inevitably leads to frustration and disengagement. Everyone benefits from clear communication so leaders have a special responsibility to practice good communication in the workplace. In the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, this is especially true. It is a given that everyone is distracted and anxious so making email communication direct and actionable is especially important.
In 2019 the Economist Intelligence Unit (sponsored by Lucidchart) studied 403 executives, managers and staff at U.S. companies and found “miscommunication leads to stress, failure to complete projects, and loss of sales.” Worse miscommunication packed an emotional toll on workers too. “Loss of morale, stress, and frustration, were common results of miscommunication,” the study found.
While technology was supposed to improve communication, study respondents often expressed dissatisfaction with technology’s impact on communication. For instance:
- Sixty percent of employees said they use email every day, but only 40% said it’s very effective at sharing information
- Many reported that technology is actually hurting communication as it has drastically cut down on direct communication, allowing employees to default to tools like email rather than phone calls and meetings.
This 2019 Economist study mirrors findings from a 2017 Society for Human Resource Management one, entitled “Tech Miscommunications May Erode Employee Engagement.” Respondents were asked which form of technology was most prone to miscommunication. This is what they said:
- 46% of respondents said emails, texts, telephone conversations, and posts shared to social media and instant messaging platforms
- 11% said communicating in person
- 43% said both
So how does a leader become better at communicating? IMA’s new online course, “Communicating in the 21st Century,” examines some of the basics of communicating and how technology has changed how we communicate. It also explores how to overcome obstacles to effective communication and identify how communication enhances leadership.
In a digital age, with so many technologies available as a medium for communication, it is critical leaders choose the right tech platform. IMA’s Strategic Finance magazine has many valuable articles on ways leaders can maximize communication in a digital age. Personalizing messages, adding visual elements where appropriate, or deciding not to use technology at all and convening in-person meetings are all tips shared in a the 2019 article, “Communicating in a Digital Age.”
The challenges of communicating effectively is one management accountants will be tasked with overcoming as their organizations and operations become increasingly digital. This is outlined in IMA’s seminal thought leadership piece on digitization’s effect on management accounting, “Are You Fit for Purpose in a Digital Age?”
Leaders, like everyone living in today’s fast-paced, crisis-driven world, may have a hard time carving out the time for taking courses online. For their convenience, IMA also offers “Count Me In For CPE,” an expansion of IMA's popular podcast series, “Count Me In,” which delves into topics like communication in a digital age or maximizing technology.
In a time of distraction and anxiety, leaders must communicate with strength and purpose like never before. Many important functions of the business rest on effective communication including employee engagement and morale as well as productivity. I believe people are at their best when they are able to participate in purpose-driven work and communication is at the cornerstone of this work.