Here’s an example of a paradox. There are many skills every professional develops, but there is a single skill we all practice since the day we are born. It’s communication. But even though we practice it each and every day, we frequently miscommunicate. We fail to see the point, avoid difficult discussions and assume that others understand us. Instead of helping us, communication works against us. It looks like it is also a major cause of stress in the workplace. According to #DySiStudy, which surveyed 1,001 U.S. employees, 70% of them feel overwhelmed because of faulty communication methods and fragmented information. There’s just something about communication that makes work harder than it should be.
Not asking for clarification
This mistake is actually quite interesting. Initially, I thought that only junior employees are scared to ask questions. I’m a perfect example of someone who struggled with asking good questions at their first job.
But the longer I cooperate with people at different levels, the more I see that this issue is omnipresent. Whether it’s an executive or a junior specialist, the rationale is the same. Nobody wants to look incompetent in front of others. Managers are afraid to ask clarifying questions, because they don’t want to be seen as incompetent. They also don’t want to lose their power. This issue is strictly related to the amount of information people have. Similarly, e.g. a junior software engineer is afraid to ask “stupid questions”, because he or she might uncover a lack of knowledge. Nobody wants to be seen as unskilled. We all strive for a good reputation, no matter what kind of position we hold.
And this behavior comes at a price. Wasting time, frequently missing the point, being unable to provide valuable input, unnecessary discussions and delegating wrong tasks. Who hasn’t spent hours working on a task which turned out to be misunderstood? I know that for some people it can be tempting to show up at a meeting, remain silent and wait until the end with the hope that nobody notices we don’t understand the topic. It might happen that we’ll be able to pretend to be experts for a while. But once we are exposed, it will be super difficult to rebuild our reputation.
That’s why if you don’t understand something, you must ask questions. And if you don’t know how to ask effective questions, I recommend reading how to ask great questions. Questions are great tools which can help you build your reputation and develop the skills you need. If you ask well-prepared questions, you’ll look a whole lot smarter than if you execute a task incorrectly. This piece of advice is worth remembering, especially in the workplace.
Reacting, not responding
Have you ever shouted at your colleague, acted harshly or sent a terse reply to an email without thinking it through? If so, it was probably an overreaction. This kind of emotional reaction can damage your reputation at work. It’s the best way to let people know that you lack self-control and emotional intelligence, which is highly unprofessional.
I know that there are moments at work when you can be simply annoyed by another person. For instance, you explain the same thing over and over again and it looks like the other person has a very short memory. So you finally reach a boiling point and blow up. You write a terse email or act cruelly, because you’ve had enough. And depending on how good you are at holding back, you may write a short response, e.g. “I’ve explained it so many times before and I can’t spell it out anymore”, or you go on the offensive and ask a rhetorical question, like “Why do I need to work with such idiots?” in front of other people. Cooperating with a person who is constantly overreacting can make for a really stressful workplace. And acting offensively combined with overreacting is a dangerous combination, which leads people to not ask questions – point #1. It’s hard to get out of such a vicious circle in the workplace.
But if you’ve already overreacted, you should speak about the issue privately with the individual involved. It’s good to say you are sorry and explain your behavior in a broader context. If you panicked and you were too harsh to your subordinate, because he didn’t send an important email, explain the underlying reason. That, for instance, your team was obligated to distribute that information and the fact that it wasn’t left all of you exposed to criticism. Now you are forced to explain the whole situation to the board of directors who are not satisfied with the way you acted or, rather, not acted. Adding a few words which explain the high stakes involved gives people a broader context to why you overreacted.
Avoiding difficult conversations
At some point, you will need to share some negative thoughts. There will be an idea which you don’t like or a moment when you’ll need to give negative feedback. And when it comes down to it, it seems that it’s not easy for many people. We’re scared that providing negative information will destroy our relationships or make us look bad.
For instance, if you don’t like your assignments, you may be reluctant to share such an opinion, because you’re scared of your manager’s reaction. Before you share any of that, you’ll think twice. You’ll raise a lot of “what if” questions. What if your manager finds you too demanding? What if he thinks that you’re just another complainer? What if he decides to replace you? It’s tempting to try to avoid difficult conversations, and, what is interesting, it works both ways. It also affects managers. They also tend to intentionally sugar coat criticism to avoid interpersonal conflict. But it can undoubtedly lead to further problems. For instance, you may find that a small problem you “let go” will soon grow into a big one.
Being too negative in order to be perceived as analytical
I guess everyone can relate to such a frustrating situation. You sit in a meeting and discuss some random problems. People share their ideas and try to find the best possible solution, but there is one person with a poker face who blocks everything. A grumbler who doesn’t like any ideas that are put forward and shoots them down one by one right away. You may ask, “Why do people behave like that?”. It’s because smart people have an analytical ability to point out potential hurdles. Hence, if you want to be seen as an expert, someone with an analytical mindset, you should find weak points. That’s true, but it has some limitations.
It serves its purpose when the debate is productive, meaning that it focuses on finding alternatives. Unfortunately, you can meet a lot of people who are just too negative and pretend to be analytical. Being negative by default is not a good idea, because it can kill a lot of valuable suggestions and stop other people from sharing their thoughts. Who would like to jump the line when there is almost 100% probability that the idea will be blocked?
While everyone appreciates analysis, people also want their colleagues to be supportive. That’s why you should first stop yourself from pointing out negative aspects, and then add a second component, i.e. propose an alternative. If you feel an idea is particularly bad, explain why you believe that and how it can be improved. That’s far more productive and still shows your analytical skills.
Using qualifiers unconsciously
Littering speech with qualifiers is one of the most common sins I observe during business meetings, especially among junior employees. You won’t believe how much power and influence you can get rid of just by using qualifiers, such as “I think”, “we might” or “I hope to” before your arguments. Consider the following example:
Both of these sentences share almost the same meaning, but there is a slight difference. Which of them would you trust more? The second statement is the one that shows confidence and commitment. And that’s what managers notice in a second. Using qualifiers allows you to add a bit of uncertainty. It’s a “safety buffer” in case you are not be able to do something. But if you overuse it and treat it as a habit, it can work against you. These verbal crutches can damage your internal and projected confidence levels and even negatively impact how you’re perceived at work.
That’s why if you don’t want to ruin your reputation as someone with a “can do” attitude, you should start paying attention to the words you use. Hiding behind qualifiers won’t help you in any way. If you already know that you won’t be able to deliver something, it’s better to state it clearly instead of pretending. Do not say “I will try”, use “I plan to” instead. It’s a small but very powerful nuance that will make a difference in the reception of your intentions.
 Schaerer, Michael & Kern, Mary & Berger, Gail & Medvec, Victoria & Swaab, Roderick. (2017). The Illusion of Transparency in Performance Appraisals: When and Why Accuracy Motivation Explains Unintentional Feedback Inflation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 144. 10.1016/j.obhdp.2017.09.002.