If you are like me, you have observed coworkers communicate via the wrong method or medium. Consider the following workplace communication examples:
- An employee who is serving a customer sends an email to get help, who then waits a very long time for a response
- A supervisor publicly reprimands/berates an employee with a handful of coworkers unnecessarily CC’d
- An employee finally sets a meeting time with a coworker after 10 back-and-forth emails of proposed times
- A worker reads an email sent 30 minutes ago stating that a customer is waiting for them on line 2
- A supervisor fumes from frustrating email interactions with a colleague from another department; the two have never had a face-to-face disagreement
From my experience, these situations are common in organizational life. Having personal experience with each of these situations, I feel its my duty to draw attention to the potential danger of using the incorrect communication medium. My hope is that you spend a bit more time identifying the best way to communicate with your coworkers the next time something important comes up.
The Mediums of Workplace Communication
Although many ways exist regarding workplace communication, one could categorize them into the four broad types/mediums:
- Text/instant message
While each workplace communication medium has unique characteristics, these mediums also all vary on the common attributes of efficiency and effectiveness. By efficiency, I mean getting the job done with minimal cost or time (less focus on quality). By effectiveness, I mean delivering high quality (less focus on cost or time). These attributes have an inherent tension. Pursuing quality improvement usually requires time and money, while pursuing faster delivery typically means sacrificing quality.
I have led workshops in both academic and industry settings centered on this topic. I have learned that people consider email and text/IM as more efficient and less effective. Meanwhile, they rate telephone and face-to-face as more effective and less efficient. The main problem arises when we use an efficient medium for a situation that demands effectiveness, or when we use an effective medium for a situation that demands efficiency. Hence, it is unwise to say, “I’m just an email person, so I’m just going to use email.” This notion ignores the fact that the situation should dictate the appropriate method of communication (versus employee preference). Understanding the nuances and trade-offs between email/IM/text versus phone/face-to-face is crucial. It is only then that we understand when we should use each medium.
A Tortoise in a Hare’s World
It is no coincidence that my examples above entail problems of using efficient and fast workplace communication mediums that could be solved by instead using effective, albeit slower forms of communication. It is much more difficult to identify a situation where email/text is called for, but where individuals instead talk face-to-face. When in doubt, we tend to use what is easiest (i.e., laziest). Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, seems to agree with this notion:
If we are not careful, technology can make lower-quality social interactions the path of least resistance. As our options for communicating have grown, we have also become less comfortable with the uncertainties of direct interaction. We hesitate to pick up the phone, because we don’t know how long the call might take. We avoid spoken questions that would be easier to handle via text, and we discourage spontaneous visits because we might get sucked into a long conversation or be inconvenienced.
Stated simply, we gravitate toward email and IM/text in our workplace communication. The limits of email and IM/text are centered on the fact that these methods lack information richness. Email and IM/text only provide words, thereby lacking voice tone and body language. This lack of richness is problematic because without the added components of voice tone and body language, misunderstandings abound. Face-to-face is the richest of all mediums. With it, intent is conveyed, urgency is signaled, and norms of respect and sensitivity are top of mind.
Supporting this point, research shows that for leader communication, nonverbal cues are more impactful than verbal cues. Also, when verbal and nonverbal cues misalign, people tend to trust nonverbal cues more due to the ambiguity at play when only words are used. Accordingly, the focal employees in my listed examples would have better avoided the ensuing problems if they would have chosen a richer workplace communication medium.
Nobody is Immune
This issue of misguided medium choice is not reserved for incompetent employees or those new to the business world. Consider Microsoft executive Stephen Elop and his infamous email that announced massive layoffs. In the 11th paragraph of the email, Elop finally got around to delivering the bad news to employees. Wow. Thus, even those who have decades of work experience, or who hold impressive job titles, or work for a world renowned organization, are also prone to making mistakes regarding communication medium choices.
The public fallout of this layoff email was enough to confirm that Elop’s choice of email was not only incorrect, but also disastrous. How much goodwill did Microsoft lose by using the wrong medium to deliver this news? My point is that far from being trivial, workplace communication is highly consequential to both you and your organization.
Leveraging Workplace Communication: Choose Wisely
We are unable to always communicate face-to-face—nor should we even if we could. However, for situations that are of high importance, urgency, or sensitivity, do not make the mistake of gravitating toward what is easiest. Instead, consider what the reaction might be if you instead chose to pick up the phone. Or even better, perhaps spend the two minutes and walk to your coworker’s desk. Choosing the right medium for the right situation will ensure that you are optimizing both your efficiency and effectiveness in your day-to-day work. This will curtail misunderstandings with coworkers. Additionally, being more deliberate in your workplace communication efforts will likely serve other benefits such as leading you to feel more connected to your organization and coworkers.
If ideas like this intrigue you, consider enrolling in one of WT’s College of Business programs! This blog post reflects topics that we discuss, debate, and synthesize in management courses here at our college. Additionally, if you have personally experienced a situation like the ones I listed above, I’d enjoy hearing from you! You can contact me via email, phone, or face-to-face—whatever the urgency and importance of the situation recommend! 😉
Dr. Trevor Watkins
Assistant Professor of Management & Foust Professor of Business
(Cover image courtesy of martechtoday.com)