Friday, January 22, 2021

If It is Important, Say It Many Times

Actions to Take: Accept the fact that repetition is a requirement for effective communication. Do not get cynical, just live with it. For important things, say them multiple times across multiple channels of communication. 

I managed a supervisor who prided herself on process development. She would work out a detailed solution to a problem as soon as she became aware of it. This supervisor would then write up a comprehensive explanation of the change and sent it to staff. Every time this happened, I knew what to expect at our next one-on-one meeting. She would spend her half of the meeting in frustration that her staff doesn't pay attention to her and doesn't follow instructions. 

There were a couple problems with her approach. For instance, I would argue that she should not have been working out comprehensive solutions to team problems on her own. But this post is not about her process development technique--it is about her frustration. She was annoyed with the her staff. She should have been annoyed with herself. 

Sometimes you will hear a manager joke, "If you tell someone a thing 5 times, they'll claim they heard it once." It is typically said with annoyance, frustration, or wry cynicism. That boss is making fun of their staff, or the situation, or the organizational culture that allows people to get away with ignoring their boss (ironically failing to realize that they are the ones who have most influence over this).

Almost every time you hear this or a comment like it, the manager is violating management rule #2. They are imagining that this error is something unique to people below them in the chain of command. They are assuming they do not make this mistake themselves. I guarantee they are wrong--just ask their boss. 

We all miss important information on the first pass. There are very good reasons why.

First, most information is irrelevant to our particular position. As a manager, I am signed up for all sorts of email lists. Perhaps one in fifty of these emails has information I need to know. The majority of the content is useless to me. That is true for the information your employee receives as well. Yes, the information from you probably has a higher hit rate than one in fifty. You would be surprised at how little of it actually relates to any one person though. In one of my library management positions, I took to sending a weekly "FYI email" to staff. I decided to review that behavior from the lens of our lowest level employee, the person whose job primarily consists of shelving books. I looked at 6 weeks of FYI emails. Approximately 15% of the items were directly relatable to their jobs, and only about 40% mattered even tangentially.

Second, we all prioritize. You want your employees to ignore some information that comes their way. It shows that they are making judgment calls about how to best spend their time. Surely no boss would argue that their employees should give the all-staff "wellness check" email blasts the same energy and focus as an email describing the launch plans for a new service. In the shelver example above, I inadvertently taught my employees to skim my emails and assume that the content generally would not matter to them. 

Third, we usually do not understand the importance of a thing the first time we hear about it. It takes time and thought to comprehend exactly how a new piece of information will change our work. This is especially true when we are wading through a sea of mostly irrelevant information, distracted by the tasks that actually matter to us. It is very easy to skim past an important change without picking up on its relevance. 

Again, all of us are guilty of this. If you are not guilty of this, you are not busy enough. Or you do not have your priorities in order, and you are spending way too much time reading unimportant emails "just in case." 

Therefore, change your perspective when you notice others missing important information. "If you tell someone a thing 5 times, they'll claim they heard it once" is not a complaint. It is not an excuse. Think of it instead as a proverb to help remind you to work harder and communicate more. Think of it like any other workflow issue. "Sometimes the cloud storage file path gets lost and you have to restart the computer." It would be great if we didn't need to do this. Things should work the way we want them to. But refusing to restart the computer because it should work differently is immature thinking. It would be great if everyone understood and absorbed every piece of information you communicated the first time you communicated it. That is not reality. Accept reality and adjust your actions accordingly.   

Once you make that perspective change, the rest is easy. Just start communicating important information multiple times and follow up with your staff. Here are a few more details to guide you:

  • Schedule yourself: If you do not already routinely think about timing your information rollout to the team, start. Here's how it might look: "I'll send out a team email about this on the 4th. I'll give a quick reminder about it on the 7th and 10th during our 5-minute all hands meeting. Then I'll follow up in one-on-ones the week of the 13th." Don't just think this through. Put reminders in the relevant places for each of these actions (e.g. your calendar reminders, your notes for the daily all hands meeting, and your one-on-ones follow up notes file). 
  • In multiple formats: Different people absorb information differently. Notice that the example above has an email, a group setting, and an individual setting to communicate the same information. Some people will get it immediately from the email. Others will feel the social pressure when it gets mentioned in the group meeting ("Does everyone else already know this?"). The rest will benefit from exploring the information in a one-on-one. These methods also reinforce each other within a single individual. A person might get some questions answered in a on-on-one and go back to meticulously read over the initial email, for instance.
  • Ask for questions: Asking for questions is good practice in general. It also prompts people to attend to the information. The first time you ask for questions, people may have none because they don't actually know what you're talking about. Maybe they skimmed it, but didn't pick up on the important details. When you ask for questions, you communicate the idea that they should have thought about it enough to generate some questions. 
  • Check for understanding: Ask them questions about it. Ask them to put the change into their own words or describe for you how it will impact their particular work. This will feel like a "gotcha" if you do it poorly. You can avoid that by giving being genuinely casual about it, giving them a pass where possible, and following up with encouragement to be ready next time. Or you can stop just short of asking the question, for example: "If I asked what the giveaway prizes are for the upcoming promotion, how many of you would know the answer?" 

There is a psychological element to this strategy as well. We naturally talk more about things that are important to us. Repetition is a useful signal even if you are confident your staff already got the message. Covering the topic multiple times, multiple ways will encourage them to realize, "I should give this some real attention. We talked about this same thing 3 weeks in a row. The boss is probably going to talk about it again next week. I need to be prepared for it." 

Most bosses assume that their job is done once they have sent out the information. Better bosses understand that it is our responsibility to ensure that staff have received the information. A very simple method for achieving that goal is to communicate important things many times. 

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