On Communication

Consider this thought experiment. What if you wrote down what you thought your role on your team is. Then every member of your team wrote down what they thought your role on the team is. If you all shared what you had written, would the answers be consistent? If they weren't, how do you think that would play out in your team dynamics? What if a second question were asked: how well are you performing in that role? Would those results be consistent? What impact would variation in the first set of answers have on the second set of answers?

When I imagine this scenario I am immediately struck by how difficult this conversation could be but also how valuable it would be to have this information out in the open.

On the one hand, people might be forced to say things or hear things they aren't comfortable with. They may have to face a reality that they have been consciously or unconsciously avoiding. It would also require a level of trust, honesty, and openness we don't necessarily have with our team.

On the other hand, it would expose assumptions we've made individually and replace them with shared understanding. A team whose members are clear about their responsibilities and how well their team was functioning would be able to address those realities directly and improve upon them together.

Good Reasons to Not Communicate

I think it's safe to say that open communication is seen as an extremely important aspect of any relationship, be they personal or business. "Transparency" in particular is a term that is being used a lot these days as something to strive for. And yet I think we still feel that we aren't getting clear communication from those around us. If we were willing to, we would even be able identify in ourselves times and situations where we shy away from being clear and honest.

I think the wrong conclusion to draw from this is that we or those around us are bad people. Far more often, I think the decision to limit communication is made for seemingly good reasons. Being honest and open is difficult and puts us in difficult situations. It often takes more strength than we think we have. We can convince ourselves that something can go without saying in order to avoid a situation we don't feel prepared for. There can be an element of self-preservation as well: we never have to face criticism, justify ourselves, or risk being wrong if we don't truly communicate.

I'm not being facetious about calling these good reasons. They can feel very compelling when we're forced to make a decision about how (or if) we communicate something. That makes it all the more important that we understand the price we are paying in avoiding communication.

The Cost of Not Communicating

As we are making a decision about whether to communicate or not, the cost of not doing so is hard to take into account because it won't be felt immediately. The cost is subtle and insidious and comes in the form of assumptions we may not be aware of.

Our assumptions are where we have filled gaps in our knowledge. In order to act, we need a foundation of knowledge regarding the environment we're acting in so that we know things like rules and priorities. When we are missing some of that knowledge, we make assumptions based on observation in that environment or extrapolation from other environments.

In our jobs and in our lives, we are constantly required to make decisions and perform actions based on available information. Those actions are often observed by others or directly affect them. If we all knew everything there was to know about every situation then the rationale for every action would be obvious. As it is, though, there will always be a great deal of information we aren't aware of. Seeing someone act in a situation we aren't familiar with may be inscrutable but it doesn't bother us because we don't expect to understand. In a situation we are familiar with, however, we do expect to understand actions people take and can respond negatively when we don't.

Think of the last time you saw a co-worker do something you didn't understand and how you reacted. You may have questioned their intelligence, their fit for their role, or their motives. Our workplace is an environment we expect to understand. We wouldn't be able to function in such a complex system without thinking we had a handle on how it worked. What if, though, you and your co-worker didn't have a shared understanding of that environment? What if they are just as intelligent, qualified, and motivated as you but are operating under different assumptions?

That brings us back to that experiment. There is no shortage of big questions that could be asked to expose and challenge our assumptions. How is our team perceived? What is our purpose? How am I perceived? What can I do better? Asking and answering those questions is not easy but there is a real cost to not doing so. Through experiencing a transition into Agile at my workplace, I've been amazed to see the transformative power that challenging assumptions has. Even just realizing that there are assumptions being made and that people might not share an understanding is profound.