You’re Not as Close as You Think

In the past I’ve written about the problems that can occur when organizations developing a Balanced Scorecard don’t agree on the terminology they will employ during the process (see: “The Importance of Terminology to Your Balanced Scorecard” at Confusing the definitions of standard terms can lead to conflicting messages, puzzled employees, and a good deal of skepticism regarding the entire implementation.

While the effects of this nasty tendency have been apparent to me for years, it was only recently that I learned one reason why it may be so common within organizations. At the root of the problem is a phenomenon psychologists term “closeness-communication bias.” Simply put, the theory suggests people commonly believe they communicate better with close friends than with strangers. The belief is based on the assumption that a well-known acquaintance is in possession of the same information the speaker has, eliminating any need to provide a longer, more detailed explanation. Their shared history creates a sort of assumed shorthand, removing the necessity to fill in any blanks that may actually stand in the way of true understanding. As one researcher put it, “Our problem in communicating with friends and spouses is that we have an illusion of insight. Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding.”

The bias can lead to wildly inflated estimates of the ability to successfully communicate. In one simple example, researchers worked with spouses who believed they shared a solid communication footing and were always ‘on the same page.’ To test this belief the researchers asked one spouse to utter a common term such as “it’s getting hot in here’ to determine if their partner was more adept at interpreting their meaning than a stranger. While the spouse uttering the phrase may have simply been suggesting the air conditioning should be switched on, the other frequently translated it as an amorous advance. As it turns out, accuracy rates for spouses and strangers were statistically identical in the study.

The research I found on this topic was restricted to close friends and spouses but it seems logical to imagine the same pernicious effects could plague communication within organizations. Co-workers are in close proximity to one another for long periods, have a shared corporate history, and undoubtedly make assumptions about the amount and type of information possessed by their bosses, peers, and subordinates. In this context we can easily imagine a manager charged with communicating a new strategic direction to her team omitting subtle yet important points based on her faulty assumption that the team is in possession of the same base level of information. When team members begin to make decisions that aren’t consistent or downright contrary to her intentions, confusion and frustration are quick to appear.

To increase the odds for successful communication with your peers simply ask yourself what you’re assuming when you share information. How much do they really know? Could they possibly have knowledge on the subject that you’re currently lacking? The small investment you make in lengthening your conversation will pay significant dividends in enhanced understanding and ultimately better results for all.


Paul Niven

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