Communicating in the Information Age: It?s Still All About Human Behavior

April 1, 2002

Applied Clinical Trials

Applied Clinical Trials, Applied Clinical Trials-04-01-2002,

Technology can do only so much; understanding human behavior and psychology is the key to improving your communication skills.

The information age defines todays workplace, now populated with a plethora of handy communication widgets, from pagers to cell phones to PDAs. Project managers are at the forefront of directing communication flow through these various channels. In an R&D environment, effective communication is critical. Project managers build a team and establish their leadership through clear, concise direction. Yet, at some point in a project life cycle, a walk through almost any team meeting yields snippets of conversations that reveal, Weve got a communication breakdown.

Despite all of our electronic aids, or perhaps because of them, communicating effectively does not come naturally to many people. The basic skills of speaking, reading, and writing are taught very early in life, and we may incorrectly assume that once those are learned, that is all it takes. However, good communication is based on a fundamental understanding of human behavior. A savvy project manager is an astute student of psychology and a trained facilitator. If project managers understand how people act and react, what habits they have, and what motivates them, it is relatively easy to decide how, when, and what to communicate effectively to get the desired result.

The basic work unit in pharmaceutical R&D is the project team. Whether it is openly stated or not, the most important core competency of the project team is communication skills. Teams that perform poorly often cite communication breakdowns as a root cause of their problems. Teams that perform well, on the other hand, have a number of success factors, but among the most important is a project manager with highly developed communication skills and the ability to foster communication throughout the team.

Most project managers are responsible for interacting with two groups: their project team and senior management. Many project managers also interact closely with their clients. Each group has different needs, expectations, and motivations. Communication techniques should be selected to meet the special needs and requirements of each group as well as individuals within these groups.

Project managers have a special responsibility to disseminate the information they receive, because they sit at the hub of a communications network. Information about the project is channeled to them from many sources, including information only indirectly related to their project. No one on the team has more information than the project manager, and people assume the project manager is routing that information. Consequently, this is often the first place where communication breaks down.

Project managers must strike an appropriate balance between providing too little and too much information. Each group should receive the information required to do its job. The same should hold true for each person within the group. People need to be properly informed and included in discussions of issues affecting them; nobody likes to be left out. On the other hand, being flooded with unimportant or irrelevant information is distracting and annoying. It takes valuable time to sift through mass communications. Wading through irrelevant items can cause one to overlook something really important. The checklist outlines common criteria for making communication more effective. If enough time and consideration are taken to issue appropriate communications about a project in a responsible manner, the project team, management, and client will not only be grateful, but also more effective in their jobs.

However, even when the criteria in the checklist are followed, communication may still be ineffective. On my first trip to Germany, bone-tired from a long flight, I switched on the hotel room TV to find a rerun of Lassie, dubbed in German. The story reached that climactic moment when little Timmy turns to Lassie and tells her to go for help. My immediate reaction was You crazy kid, that dog doesnt understand German! But dogs dont understand English, either.

There is an important lesson here: The spoken word is only a small component of communication. Timmy could speak any language at all to Lassie. She understood her master by noting his vocal tone, visual cues, the context of the situation, and consistent past behaviors. Similarly, visual cues, vocal inflections, context, and past experiences play a big role in the way we communicate with other humans. Words are important only as a framework for the other factors in determining what the recipient concludes from our communication. When communication fails, it is because the behaviors, habits, and personalities of the two parties place different interpretations on what the words mean.

Effective communication requires the participation and cooperation of two parties: senders and receivers. Project managers play a key role by setting a good example and facilitating the flow of information between other senders and receivers. Most breakdowns in communication are the result of misunderstandings between senders and receivers. The Behavioral Barriers box lists examples of typical communication breakdowns.

Technological innovations have introduced many new communication tools (email, voice mail, faxes, cell phones, Internet chat rooms). One might think that todays communication must surely be better than in the days when we sealed envelopes with wax and had them delivered by a messenger on horseback. Not so. New technologies simply make it easier to send words. Methods for ensuring accurate interpretation and appropriate actions by the recipients of those words have not advanced. Such comments as I cant read your mind and I didnt get the message are clues that human behavior is a contributing factor. Techniques to overcome that kind of communication breakdown require more from human psychology than from technology.

The art of mind reading
Poor communicators often share the misconception that somehow everybody knows exactly what a speaker means (whether it is actually said or not), and automatically acts the way the speaker expects without additional prompting. If they dont, its labeled as a communication breakdown. The sender wonders why they dont get it. Often, the sender fails to take into account the recipients personality, habits, and focusand therefore misjudges the way the recipient will interpret and react to the message. To correct this, first ensure the right message is being sent by meeting the criteria listed in the checklist (see below)

Information that is transmitted clearly, accurately, professionally, and in a timely manner facilitates a teams work, managements understanding of project progress, and the clients confidence. More importantly, though, project managers should be attentive to the behavioral barriers to communication. Misunderstanding, mistrust, and inefficiency can result when a message is transmitted in a way that makes it difficult for the team, its management, and the client to easily and appropriately act upon the information.

The needs of those groups may differ and require customization. If a project loses a key contributor, for example, the remaining team members may need to know how much extra work will be expected of them. Management, however, may need to know about the likelihood of higher operating costs, and the client may want to be reassured that the original timelines and deliverables will still be met.

Communication breakdowns may be compounded when an action is expected from the recipient. In this situation, the recipient must go beyond understanding the senders message. For successful completion, the recipient must accurately interpret what is expected of him or her and be motivated to actually do it.

Project managers must often lead teams without the benefit of a reporting relationship. Even when they do, they cannot always rely on team members to act upon every request simply because it was given. Recipients may readily agree to act, but fail to follow through for any one of a number of reasonsthey may be busy, they may forget, they may have a higher priority task. In some cases, a team members supervisor simply overrules a request from a project manager.

The Rule of Three
The hurdles to understanding and motivation may be avoided by applying the simple Rule of Three. Make a request three times in three different ways. Its easy to forget a request when it comes from someone who doesnt write your performance appraisal. Its hard to avoid it when asked a second time and given a chance to clarify any ambiguities, including the scope of work and completion date. By discussing the request a third time, the recipient risks being labeled rude or incompetent if the request is still ignored.

Misunderstanding goes both ways. The Rule of Three provides an opportunity for feedback on the way a request was actually received. It offers an opportunity for the sender to clarify ambiguities and may identify competing priorities the recipient must manage. The feedback may also provide insight as to why a recipient is reluctant or resistant to a request. Finally, thorough follow-up may reveal that the original request was more complicated or difficult to complete than intended. This feedback provides an opportunity to redefine or reconsider the original request, and provides information about ways to motivate a recipient more effectively.

Using multiple communication channels enhances the probability of reaching the recipient. Rather than leaving repeated email messages, try the telephone or a fax. Contact a colleague to determine whether the intended recipient is on vacation or otherwise out of reach. Make sure that follow-up messages are consistent, even-tempered, and to the point. Avoid the temptation to use sharper and more critical language, as this can increase the potential for conflict. The tenth message should be as calm and professional as the first. Inflammatory language only makes it more difficult to get the necessary cooperation to complete the task.

The Rule of Three is an effective communication method. It reduces the impression that recipients must be able to read minds. Its application creates an environment and forum for resolving misunderstandings before they become issues. At the same time, it offers greater incentives by identifying useful motivational factors and helping to ensure that requests are acted upon.

Getting the messageKnowledge is power. Some communication failures come from people who complain that they are deprived of information to which they feel entitled. It is the project managers responsibility to ensure that team members have all the information they need to do their jobs. In addition, the team will work more effectively together if they have a general understanding of what their teammates are doing and get regular updates on overall project status. Status updates are also critical for senior management and clients, who need to make informed decisions affecting the project.

Tailor a message to its intended audience. Team members need specific details to plan their work and coordinate hand-offs among teammates. Senior managers and clients may not wish to know every project detail as long as they are clearly and regularly apprised of the projects progress, budget adherence, timetables, and quality of workmanship. If any factor is not meeting management or client expectations, the project manager should take the initiative to provide more detail along with proposed solutions.

I didnt get the message. Some people use the tactic of not getting the message as a way of saving face. It is a graceful excuse for people who fail to meet a deadline, forget an action item, or come to a meeting unprepared. If there is a pattern in which one person fails to get messages more often than others, the mail system may not be the problem. It is unlikely that messages fail to get through when the Rule of Three is consistently applied. Team leaders cannot force people to read, listen, or respond, but they can anticipate and compensate. Dont assume that they are getting the message. Despite technical breakdowns, piles of incoming mail stacked on a recipients desk, and unexpected absences from the office, make it impossible for recipients to claim they never got the message or never saw it. Follow up. Remind. Confirm.

Finding fault
When people complain about communication breakdowns, they generally imply that it is the other guys fault: They are failing to communicate properly with me; Im not the problem. If only somebody would fix the other guy, everything would be okay. If communication is ever to improve, however, each team member must assume personal responsibility for fixing it. Others can be influenced but not controlled.

Modern communication tools improve the ease of sending information, but they do nothing to improve listening and understanding on the receiving end. Recipients are not required to read incoming messages, and there is no way to adequately determine whether or not they do. Furthermore, although they may be extremely convenient, some electronic tools (such as email, voice mail, and faxes) are much less interactive than face-to-face communication. Unless they talk directly, senders cannot be certain when or how a message is received (if at all), whether a message is understood, or when and if a recipient will act on a message appropriately. Understanding the limitations of communications devices and how people use themor dont use themis a key to successful communication. And using the Rule of Three can help to ensure that messages are reaching team members in the way they are most likely to receive them.

Encourage team members to follow up with one another and, when appropriate, with the client. Communicate in ways that take peoples feelings and motivations into account. Dont become a victim of technologys limitations. Project managers cannot control other peoples behavior, but with a little psychological insight and follow-up, they can anticipate, compensate, and minimize the negative impact of their communications.

Word speed collides with understanding
Despite their convenience, modern communication technologies have improved only the speed of transmitting words. Over 90% of communication is achieved through body language and vocal inflections. Less than 10% actually relies on the words that are used.1

Near real-time electronic communication provides ample opportunity to act on misunderstanding rapidly. Consider the impact of faster word transmission. A sender may innocently transmit information that a recipient takes out of context or misunderstandsand interprets negatively. Electronic communication tools accelerate and amplify the negative spin. Time is lost while the sender and recipient, and perhaps others, struggle to undo the misunderstandings, pursue meaningless issues unrelated to the original intent, and soothe hurt feelings.

Modern technologies have redefined the speed with which business is done and are both a blessing and a curse for project managers. Cycle times, customer service expectations, and many other business practices all presuppose that workers can respond quicklyoften in real time. Traditional postal delivery is now called snail mail and e-business is the norm. This can encourage team members to act before they think, before they check all the facts adequately, and even before they have complete input from a sender.

Electronic communication is attractive to many people because it is convenient, fast, and fun to use. However, a comparison of the time it takes to formulate a thoughtful and appropriate response with the time it takes to sort out the repercussions from hasty action reveals that greater efficiency often results when communication proceeds more slowly and deliberately. Certainly, when high-tech communications are used effectively, they can enhance customer satisfaction and reduce cycle timebut only as one component in a repertoire of communication choices.

Another reason modern communication technologies are attractive is that they are impersonal. All sorts of messages can be sent, including bad news and inflammatory remarks, without seeing the recipients reaction. It is human nature to avoid conflict, which is unpleasant and may be threatening. Conflict also implies fighting until one party winsand no one wants to lose. Email provides a particularly attractive forum for fighting battles. By defending a sensitive issue through email, a sender can avoidor at least have an illusion of avoidinga potentially embarrassing situation. Winning the respect of highly regarded colleagues takes time, and one awkward performance in their presence can damage that hard-won respect. Through email, the opponent doesnt have to be faced, and the battle can be waged on the senders own scheduleaway from the probing eyes of influential people.

Project managers are often challenged to do all they can to keep team communications constructive, effective, and aligned with the ultimate goals and objectives of the project, and a phone phobia may stand in the way. Whether it is caused by attraction to high-tech toys, avoidance of conflict, or both, project managers and team members may be prone to such phobic behavioran inability to simply pick up the phone and speak directly with the other party. Even better than picking up the telephone is a walk down the hall to talk face-to-face. Direct talk on the phone or in person is often resisted because it is both low-tech and emotionally stressful. It is, however, by far the best choice when dealing with bad news or difficult issues.

Talented project managers avoid impersonal methods when communicating bad newsa time when emotions run high, issues can be difficult and complex, and time is typically constrained. Sensitive situations often require problem-solving sessions and are best done in a setting that fosters discussion. Avoid propagating volleys of increasingly inflammatory email. It builds walls. Small problems can be elevated to monumental heights, evolve into other topics completely off the original subject, and generate hurt feelings on both sidesall of which are unnecessary. Face-to-face interaction builds bridges. Parties have a better chance of connecting because they can use visual cues and visual aids, discuss things interactively, and work out the problem together.

It is important to remember that people rarely set out to be nasty. But when a recipient perceives a message as hurtful, the perception may linger and a relationship may be damaged. Even among close colleagues, a poor choice of words can contribute to misunderstanding. The chance of miscommunication is compounded when communication involves different languages and cultures. A project manager must balance the need for speed against the need for accuracy and completeness. Encourage and foster opportunities for direct talk.

Speaking, reading, and writing are among the earliest skills learned in life. By the time people are adults, the way they use these skills is so instinctive and ingrained that they give little conscious thought to the way they use them. Speaking is not the same as communicating. What someone reads is not always interpreted in the way that the author intended. In drug development, project managers are at the center of directing these interactions and must always be mindful that communication can fail if they fail to recognize the importance of context, experience, emotional state, and visual cues.Although email is faster than a quill pen and cell phones are more fun than Morse code, modern technologies do not ensure better communicationonly faster transmission of words. Senders need take the initiative to ensure that the messages they transmit can be understood as intended, particularly in our increasingly global work environment.

References
1. You Dont Say! Communication Skills (Crossroads Group, 247 North Bent Road, Wyncote, PA 19095, 1993).

Additional Reading
Joan Knutson, You Owe Your Project Players a Communication Infrastructure, Part 1, PM Network, November 1999, 2122.

Joan Knutson, You Owe Your Project Players a Communication Infrastructure, Part 2, PM Network, December 1999, 2324.

Michael Kemp, Learning to Listen, PM Network, February 2001, 5962.Thomas J. Purcell, Enhancing Electronic Communications between Team Members by Establishing Best Practices: A Communications Specialists Perspective, Drug Information Journal, 35, 3540 (2001).

Carol L. Grimes, Communicate, Communicate, Communicate, PM Network, May 2001, 20.

Carlo Donati, Communication Skills for Monitors, Applied Clinical Trials, July 2001, 3639.

SIDEBAR: Behavioral Barriers to Communication
Some typical examples of communication breakdown:

  1. Senders writing style may be offensive (too friendly, too stiff).
  2. Senders mood and emotions may creep into the writing style.
  3. Sender says one thing but means something else.
  4. Sender overestimates what the recipient knows.
  5. Sender makes different assumptions than recipient.
  6. Inaccurate information is purposely communicated.
  7. Action required by receiver may be unclear.
  8. Receivers interpretation may differ from the senders.
  9. Receiver may avoid or delay a required action.

SIDEBAR: Checklist for Effective Communication

  1. Target the correct audience.
  2. Communicate information in a timely manner, neither too late nor prematurely.
  3. State the purpose of the message clearly.
  4. Include sufficient information in the message.
  5. Give specific information, neither too detailed nor too general.
  6. Avoid information overload, eliminate everything that is irrelevant.
  7. Make information clear and concisewell-written and of sufficient depth.
  8. Communicate the correct information.
  9. Use familiar jargonwords and phrases understood in the work group.
  10. Choose an appropriate medium.
  11. Use an appropriate formatfor example, tables vs. graphs.

Rebecca J. Anderson,PhD, is a drug development consultant with Covance Inc., 1452 Quail View Circle, Walnut Creek, CA 94596, (925) 930-2840, fax (925) 930-2860, email: rebecca.anderson@covance.com.

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