How to Prevent Miscommunication in the Virtual Workplace


In an interesting article written by Keith Ferrazzi of Harvard Business Review, he says that lack of context causes miscommunication in the virtual workplace. And he’s right. It’s easier to sense tension among peers if you can see them face to face in a meeting than when they’re speaking with you in a teleconference call. The mean of communication in a virtual workplace often keeps us from getting hints through facial expression, body language, eye movements, and more. These things are what we miss out on in a typical email exchange for example.

To avoid this from happening, Ferrazzi outlined tips on how it can be prevented. Here’s a summary of what he said:

Fight the illusion of transparency

It’s easy to think that people are more in tune with what you say than they really are. The key to fix this illusion is to promote empathy in the virtual workplace. Sharing personal information through an intranet site, according to him, is highly recommended to help promote better understanding of the people you interact with.

Speak the right language

We all prefer a certain “language” at work. “Some people are more quantitative (preferring raw numerical data) while others are more visual (favoring pie charts and bar graphs). For others, storytelling and anecdotes are best. Managers should encourage teams to express such preferences at the start of a virtual project,” Ferrazzi explains. Knowing how people communicate prevents us from misinterpreting one another. A brief, seemingly expressionless email may not always mean that the person who sent it is mad or distant if we know that he normally communicates that way.

Amplify the signal

A condition psychologists call signal amplification bias, causes us to communicate less information than we think we are. “Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the other person hasn’t understood what we’re trying to say, often hear only too late that I thought it was obvious that… or, I didn’t think I needed to spell that out…” says Ferrazzi.

The medium (is partly) the message

The well-known phrase “The medium is the message,” might have only been applicable at the time it was conceived. Thus it has not taken into consideration newer and more sophisticated types of communications media such as e-mail, IM, texting, video conferencing, and more.

An example Ferrazzi uses is that of an executive who “overhears a rumor at a conference and texts that information to someone on his staff. Later that day, he’s baffled to learn that his entire team has been scrambling all morning to confirm the rumor, which he had merely passed along as idle industry gossip.”

Lesson learned? Certain media imply urgency, just like texting. It’s best to be mindful at all times and never allow the medium used to give a different meaning to your message.

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