What’s wrong with team communication?

Laura Bouttell disentangles the communication lines.

A lot has been written about one-to-one communication. Some might think that the principles remain the same once you scale up communication within a team. And mostly they do, but team communication has added complications that need to be dealt with.

Let’s explore why teams add even more trouble to the already complicated minefield of communication. First, teams are going to grow. That’s just how it is in business. There’s always too much work, new expertise is required and so on.

As teams grow, communication gets more complicated. If there are two people on a team (the minimum required number for a team) then there is one line of communication. If you add a 3rd person suddenly the lines of communication jump to three. If you add a 4th then the lines of communication jumps to six. If the team grows to five there are 10 lines of communication.

When it’s six there’s 15 communication lines.

In fact, as the team grows the lines of communication grow exponentially. We’ve got emails and meetings to help improve communication but they often hinder communication. What I usually hear from people is that they’ve got too many emails and too many meetings.

Whatever issues a company, team or person have regarding communication quickly gets multiplied when more people get involved.

So what can we do to cope?

We need to make sure we’ve got the foundations right first. Put into use all those tips, techniques and training courses you’ve been on. If people aren’t polite and don’t communicate one-to-one well in the first place, then nothing else you do is going to matter. This is something we all struggle with every day, even so-called ‘experts’ or ‘gurus’.

Many people will automatically fall back on emails without thinking about it. Most people fire off an email when a quick phone call or walking across the office for a two minute face-to-face chat would be far better.

In recent years we’ve also gained other technological tools to replace email and meetings in certain situations. Personally I hate the word ‘wiki’. Why have people as stores of knowledge within an organisation when information can easily be digitised and placed in private online spaces for people to find?

The other day a friend was lamenting his new job because all the information, systems and processes he needed to know were, as he put it, ‘in one bloke’s head and it takes him an hour to explain something that should take 20 mins’. Or probably take five mins to look up if it was in an operations manual.

Chat (as it is known nowadays, and by various other monikers depending on one’s age) is a hot new fad sweeping the corporate world. If you haven’t heard of Slack then where have your IT department been hiding? Real time chat is probably preventing billions of emails being sent every month. And while if used badly it can be just as overwhelming as email it is another option to add to your communication toolbox.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – you can probably think up several more. Kanban, Agile, countless other systems, software and gadgets are out there.

Just getting off autopilot will get you 80% of the way there. Before communicating en masse ask yourself some pertinent questions such as ‘do I really have to call this meeting? Who really needs to be there? What is the desired outcome of this meeting? Do I really need to send this email? Do I really need to cc all these people? Can I just talk to someone quickly rather than contribute to their inbox anxiety?’

I once caught myself sending an email to someone who sat on a desk five feet away just to notify him the task he needed done was complete. So I just got up and walked over and delivered the message that way.

In summary, don’t over-rely on meetings and email, people are already up to their eyeballs in them. Make use of new tools, systems and processes that are more appropriate. It doesn’t matter what tools you use if you’re not using them effectively. Get the basics right. If you rub someone up the wrong way it doesn’t matter if you did it over email or to their face.


About the author

Laura Boutell is MD at Quarterdeck


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