No modern business professional can deny the necessity of communication and the benefits that it brings. Communication synchronizes efforts, aligns goals, and enhances innovative solution processes. Even so, we all know that communication can just as easily become a distraction. As the inbox piles up and voicemail starts to overflow, stress and disorganization are sometimes a more likely result than a cohesive team of motivated workers. Is there such a thing as too much communication, and what can leaders do to find the right balance?
According to recent research out of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, there is indeed such a thing as too much communication. A team of scientists working with network simulations have discovered a truth that seems to apply to any network of individuals working together to achieve a common goal, whether those individuals are birds in a flock or employees in a business.
Here’s what they found:
- When there are no delays in communication, more communication is almost always better.
- If there are delays in communication, it will increase performance for a while, but it will eventually reach a point where it is counterproductive. In theory, sustained communication would eventually bring productivity all the way down to zero.
These results come from a branch of mathematics called stochastic processes, and they apply to any network that fits the bill, including a network of employees.
Professor Gyorgy Korniss put the results bluntly: “After a point, you also need to know when to ‘shut up.'” Once delayed communication reaches the tipping point where it becomes counterproductive, no additional communication can improve productivity, even if the method of communication is improved.
The results suggest that sometimes communications need to be “rebooted.” Teams can only benefit so much from communication, since all real-word communication is delayed in some way, either because the message itself is delayed, or because we can never act on the information immediately.
As leaders, we need to recognize the limits of communication, understand when it can be counterproductive, and take action when necessary. So how should we go about doing that?
Minimize Unnecessary Communication with Planning
While today’s workplace is a far cry from the assembly line, and excessively detailed planning often does more harm than good, it’s a good idea to specify at least certain elements of your project ahead of time. In particular, where possible, you should schedule tasks sequentially, so that they are taken on one at a time.
Why do this? While it certainly feels like you’re getting more done by assigning employees to multiple projects at a time, this is almost always counterproductive. It leaves employees scattered, creating exactly the kinds of delays in communication discussed above. This creates efficiency problems as well as introducing barriers to innovation and creative problem solving.
Encourage Instantaneous Communication
While tools like email and document sharing undoubtedly have their place, they shouldn’t be approached as the primary method of communication. When possible, keep employees co-located so that they can communicate face to face instantaneously when necessary. In lieu of that, a phone call is typically the next best option.
Remember, delayed communication is the source of communication breakdowns. While it is beneficial up to a point, it eventually becomes counterproductive, and renders further communication useless until it is “rebooted.”
Use email and document sharing for what it’s good for: reference material. These tools shouldn’t be used as a method for keeping employees up to date with one another. There are too many delays. Use them to share information that needs to be referred to more than once, or that simply works better as a static document.
By the same token, you should be very cautious with some of the “social tools” currently being introduced on the market. While the benefits of CRM are undeniable, and the advantages of project management software with a few collaborative capabilities are numerous, most businesses don’t need an internal social network. This is a very slow method of communication and it should only be used for one-to-many (or many-to-one) communication, or for reference material.
Regardless of the specific medium in question, encourage your team not to use “permanent” communication tools for messages that are “transient.” In other words, communications that are only relevant in the present moment should be limited strictly to face-to-face or phone call.
Introduce Information Cut-Offs
As leaders we can and should make an effort to encourage communication methods that are as close to instantaneous as possible, but the real word prevents us from perfect communication at all times. Even if all communications were face-to-face, for most jobs it’s impossible to communicate and work at the same time. Work itself introduces unavoidable delays in communication that will eventually pile up, no matter how many efforts we take against it.
As the study above demonstrates, along with the personal experience of many in management, the solution to this problem is not additional communication, no matter how efficient. The solution is to temporarily cut off communication, focus on something productive, and then resume communication.
Precisely how this is accomplished is up to company culture and leadership choices. Here are a few options worth considering:
- Introduce a daily “no communication” period where employees are restricted from any form of communication and must use the time to work on something else. This method is probably the most extreme and it’s possible that it could breed resentment with leadership, but there may be some circumstances where it is accepted, or even seen as a relief.
- A friendlier alternative would be to introduce a daily period of no work-related communication.
- Allow or require employees to take a “silent” period at some point during the workday, where all forms of communication are temporarily cut off and the employee can focus on work.
As leaders, we all understand the undeniable power of communication. While it’s important to build a culture of communication within your business, it’s equally important to understand its limitations, and when it can actually start to work against us. This is what it means to be an effective communicator.
Author: Mary Prescott is working as a community manager at WorkZone – A web-based project management software company. She is @MaryP_WZ on Twitter. When she’s not working, you’ll find her reading fiction or hiking with her dog.
Published: January 7, 2014