There are few experiences that can force learning more than misunderstandings with a business colleague. Misunderstandings happen all the time in organizations and in the best of relationships. Actually, misunderstanding is more prevalent than understanding. The reality is that consistently successful communication is especially abnormal in organizational settings. And although the resulting emotions of embarrassment, threat, fear or anger can hinder us from being proactive and growing, just as often it can propel our learning.
The reasons for misunderstandings are numerous in the organizational setting: levels of hierarchy, larger work teams, cultural, age, sex, gender, religious and value differences, struggles for power, competition among peers for scarce resources, and the increased use of interpersonal communication media. At its most basic, misunderstanding refers to instances in which people who are communicating attach a wrong meaning to what another person has said or done. We draw the wrong inference or conclusion from another’s behavior. The good new is that there’s a significant upside to misunderstandings. Indeed, they can be very good for your and your career.
Misunderstandings help us consider alternative ways of acting. Paradoxically, the more we get to know a colleague or a team member, the more we make overt, evaluative and wrongheaded judgments of them. That can result in stereotyping their behaviors, making inaccurate predictions about them, assuming understanding or assent to our ideas, filtering needed information and offering critical feedback thoughtlessly. In the work setting where productivity and efficiency are high priorities, these behaviors can quickly become breakdowns and challenges to our work identity. As a result, once our behaviors are called into question, smart employees kick the gray matter into gear, analyze the behavior and strategize for necessary changes. The constructive consequences can result in adopting needed communication processes and attitudes of mind: suspending judgment of right vs. wrong, assuming the legitimacy of others’ views, defining terms, dealing with facts rather than interpertations or inferences, taking feeling and emotions into account as important facts and attending to feedback. Most of all, misunderstandings can enable us to pay attention to how people respond to the information we give, and enhance our ability to collaborate–a needed competency in the New Economy.
Misunderstandings can lead to new ways of structuring our roles. Misunderstandings and conflicts are often announcements of role disagreement. When people work on related projects, responsibilities may be poorly defined and blur. Egos get in the way, and the misunderstanding surfaces, sometimes in the form of conflict. In those settings, those involved or higher ups can refocus, realign and redefine responsibilities, making for more efficiency and productivity. The astute employee, with some very smart power plays, can work misunderstanding to their own personal and career advantage.
Misunderstandings can help bridge hierarchy and functional differences. Functional loyalties and objectives within the organization are rampant with misunderstanding. When, for example, marketing and sales, IT and finance, or manufacturing and logistics have to work together, misunderstanding is inevitable. In the management hierarchy bosses are privy to the “bigger picture.” They forget and sometimes ignore the fact that their subordinates do not have access to needed information for projects and other complex tasks. Smart employees can step up to the plate and work to resolve misunderstandings. Not only do those employees gain better understanding of how things work and add to their store of useful business knowledge, but they also earn a valuable reputation.
Interpersonal misunderstandings can surface organizationally useful growth opportunities. When we think of work misunderstandings, interpersonal difficulties usually come to mind first. Although too often ignored, when telephones, emails, fax machines and social networks are used for organizational communication, nonverbals such as emotional tone, eye movement, flesh color, facial expression and body gestures are muted or completely absent. A tease may be interpreted as an insult. A high prioritiy may be interpreted as something of no urgency. And simple feedback may be interpreted as personal rejection. Yet resolution of misunderstandings has been shown to provide a greater understanding of oneself, clarify similarities and and dissimilarities, reveal areas in which communication effort and adaption need to be strengthened, and assist in learning methods for coping with future misunderstanding and conflict.
The simple practice of recognizing that misunderstanding is far more prevalent than mutual understanding can be of much value. Misunderstanding proves one of the best opportunities for gaining a richer personal identity. There’s no real way of figuring out our identity, what psychologists refer to as our unique mixture of “selves,” until we see how others respond to us in different work settings. Of course, the more selves I have access to, the more strategies I have to extract and impose in any work situation, and the less reason I’ll ever be surprised or astonished . In today’s highly competitive world, my access to a lot of “selves” is the key to work success. Although many older workers fail to take advantage of these opportunities, I’ve found that Gen-Yers often move quickly to resolve a misunderstanding. The consequence is that they can develop a better grasp of the attitudes, values and behaviors of others, and thus are more able to manage the relationship for their own personal and career ends.