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5 Ways Work Relationships Can Go Wrong

Even under the best conditions, work relationships can go wrong. And even when we try very hard, communication between workers can go very wrong. To a surprising degree relationship problems are the result of rigid, deeply held mental models. These out-of-sight, out-of mind assumptions about interpersonal communication can seriously impact our judgment. Here are the big five assumptions that get us into trouble.

1. Consistency. Americans value consistency to a phenomenal degree.  Emerson’s misquoted phrase, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, is rarely heard today. That’s because politicans and the public believe strongly in consistency and don’t want to bad-mouth it. Politicians and commentators constantly upbraid each other when they find inconsistent remarks. Years ago, when Peter McGrath was President of the University of Minnesota, he changed his mind about a very important subject. He also stated publicly that he’d changed his mind. The behavior was so unusual that his remark and picture appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The fact of the matter is that the most “ideal” relationship never has a stream of consistent messages. And so, it’s far more useful and productive to recognize that inconsistent messages between people is the norm, not unusual. In fact, trying to straighten inconsistency out is not nearly as valuable as viewing it as an opportunity for learning more about the other person and your relationship with that person.

2. Simple meanings. “You said it, so you must have meant it.” We’re taught to pay attention to what is said–the words. Meanings, however, are derived from many other sources. A better way to understand meaning is this: “Meanings are in persons, not in words.” In short, we don’t always say what we mean, or even mean what we say. “He’s crazy,” means one thing in a psychiatric evaluation, and another in Comedy Central. Studies suggest that in organizations misunderstanding is more prevalent than accuracy. Get used to the fact that communication breakdowns are much more typical than we normally expect. So it’s important to listen to how messages are presented as well as the context. Recognizing this assumption can make us especially careful about meanings and interpretations, whether sending or receiving messages.

3. Communicator independence. Communication is always interdependent. In other words, we’re a lot more responsible for our partner’s responses than we think. It’s obvious that how we listen to what a partner is communicating impacts the quality of the message sent. If my nonverbals show that I’m giving full attention to a person, that person will inevitably send more info and better quality info. If I look away from a speaker, that speaker will give me less input. We unconsciously match each each other. Our behavior, whether listening or talking, determines the messages other’s send us far more than most of us realize. If my message is open and transparent, I’m liable to receive open and transparent messages from others. If I treat the other with cautious and subtle messages, I’m liable to receive cautious and subtle messages from them. So when I interview in behalf of a client, I ask questions in exceedingly transparent and open fashion. That determines the quality of feedback. How that plays out for me is that if I’m not getting the info I need from a recipient, I’ll double the quality of attentiveness and the message for the recipient. It’s not merely the questions I ask, but how I ask my questions that determine what I’ll get. Message-making is inevitably interdependent. So it’s important to train yourself to examine very carefully the effects of your communication–by watching and listening more and “telling” less. The others’ responses, expressions, and actions tell what they have understood.

4. Obvious motivation. Interpreting (misinterpreting) other’s motivation creates as much difficulty among workers as any relationship issue. When it’s important to understand why a person does what he is doing, it’s easy for us to jump to conclusions about that person’s motivation. Contrary to pop psych, the motivations of another person are not readily decipherable. On the one hand, if a person’s motives aren’t clear to us, it’s difficult for us to think that another person might understand. And second, we inevitably filter our perceptions of another’s motives through our own needs and expectations. When it comes to communication and relations, we are egocentric souls. The true-fact is that motivations are usually complex and well hidden. Nuance and subtlety are the norms. If understanding a person’s motives is important to me and my business, I do four things: withhold judgment (that can be really difficult, too), sleep on my interpretation, dig out three to five other possible motivations, and then question and pay attention to that person’s behavior to get a better fix. I’ve found these to be especially advantageous, even positively impacting my business bottom line.

5. Finality. To a business person, “finishing” means that she can get on with the next task. Since corporate America rewards “results-oriented” employees, finishing has assumed an unrealistic power. Furthermore, my use of the Myers-Briggs in business settings reveals that few are comfortable with change. In short, 90% of business people don’t like to revisit problems. Still, the need to change, whether solution-wise or person-wise, cannot be ignored. So shift your assumptions about finishing and change–be open to better resolutions, but be able to say no to change when the improvement will not be significant. (You’re going to have to decide what “significant” means.) People who make change for change sake get a reputation for wasted time and money. And people who can’t change when change is needed, eventually end up on the streets. 

Communication is a lot more than just words. These five assumptions are widely prevalent, and persistent in all organizations. They are all flawed in some way, but:

  • They explain why two people see the same experience differently.
  • They shape how we act in various situations.
  • They determine how we problem solve.
  • They are usually “out of our awareness.” 

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