I have written in the past about communication through the lens of information conveyance. That is a useful model for coaching people (usually engineers) to focus more on the audience’s understanding than on their own highly precise broadcast.
I have written in the past about communication failure when collaboration is needed instead. That is a useful model to get people to talk to each other rather than at each other.
These two focused on aspect of the “how” of workplace communication. You’d think that “why” we communicate at work would be somewhat obvious: to convey information. If you’re reading this article, you are almost certainly a knowledge worker. And you’d naturally think “Why would we communicate if not to spread knowledge?” — but conveying information is the most basic, most foundational answer. Unless your goal is to cover your ass, simply informing people is rarely enough.
At work, the end goal of communication is to change peoples’ minds. Telling someone something that they already know isn’t valuable. Giving someone information that they don’t care about wastes their time. Providing feedback that someone can’t act on frustrates them to no end. Knowledge is important, but decisions are what shape the world around us.
Effective workplace communication causes people to make decisions that they wouldn’t have otherwise made.
Sometimes that’s easy to see. A boss gives an order, then people do it. A sign says that the bathroom is out of order, so people find another one. An email reminds people to take the mandatory training, and most people do it (even though nobody wants to).
Sometimes effective communication is not easy to see. Some comment in source code prevents a programmer from making the same mistake years later. A leader’s slight scowl causes folks that know them well to dig harder into some ambiguous data. A kind word gives someone just enough patience to endure their kid’s meltdown that night.
The problem is that all of these things look exactly like ineffective workplace communication! The boss giving an order that people would do anyways. A sign saying the bathroom is out of order when the toilet is cracked. The fourth email to take the…