In the 1980s, psychologist John Gottman began researching newlyweds. One of things he and his colleagues discovered is, well, shocking to say the least: Divorce can be predicted within 15 minutes, and with 94 percent accuracy, by studying a couple's micro-expressions (brief, involuntary facial expressions).
Of course, oodles of research exists focusing on the powerful messages sent by non-verbal communication. However, I became intrigued with something other than the body posture, expressions, and personal distances often studied with regard to non-verbal messages. I became curious about verbal messages--especially at work--and how the messages spoken aren't always the messages received.
"How'd we generate so much trash today?" I heard a retail manager ask a stock clerk as he filled a shelf with product. "I think we just had a lot more packaging to remove today," responded the clerk.
I shopped in the same area of the store for five or six minutes. The manager returned to the clerk and asked, "Didn't you take out the trash? I specifically told you to take out the trash." The clerk didn't respond with words. He simply stood, shoulders slouching, and walked to the back of the store.
Obviously the manager believed she was clear with her communication. However, the clerk heard something very different.
Conducting interviews with managers and employees from around the world, I know how common and frustrating this situation can be in the workplace--a manager says one thing but an employee hears something else.
Here are the four most common statements and questions I've found that leaders say, and the four most common assumptions employees make when they hear them:
What Leaders Say: "What are you working on?"
What Employees Might Hear: At first, you might assume that an employee would consider this question as just a friendly conversation starter--an opening to discuss any hurdles or problems. However, many employees perceive this question to mean, "My leader actually does not know what I do, or what I'm working on."
As leaders, it's important to be clear with your questions and your intentions. "How's the XYZ project going and if there is anything I can do to help, just let me know," would be much more effective.
What Leaders Say: "If you have something important to say, please speak up."
What Employees Might Hear: As well-intentioned as this statement might be, consider what an employee might hear. "My boss says this all the time," said Tim, a guy I interviewed who worked in data-processing center. "I always feel marginalized. It's like my daily opinions didn't matter, or that nothing I've thought about in the past was important."
As leaders, again, it's important to be clear with your statements and your intentions. "I'd love to hear your ideas and my door is always open," might work better.
What Leaders Say: "I'm going to trust you on this one."
What Employees Might Hear: Okay, so if you've read the first two examples, you can already see the flaw in this common statement, often intended to be a positive statement of encouragement. But, again, think what the employee is hearing. They're wondering why you didn't trust them before.
Instead, as a leader, try, "I trust you" or "You always figure it out" or even, "You're the rock star in this category."
What Leaders Say: "We can't mess this up."
What Employees Hear: Yeah, let's just skip to the advice on this one. When leaders make this statement they're simply trying stress the importance of a project. Instead of making a comment that basically says that you don't trust that someone will do a job correctly, try, "This is an important project and I know you're the right person to pull it off."
By changing your language slightly, you've changed the entire conversation from "I think you'll screw it up," to "I'm your biggest cheerleader."
Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is often tricky--because no matter how good any of us think we are at conveying messages, we must always consider what the recipient of our communication is hearing, thinking, and feeling.
On a final note, if any of this is scaring you to the point where you might be thinking, "Maybe I'm better off saying nothing at all," don't assume you've solved the problem. When leaders say nothing at all, most employees assume that means, "I'm not liked. My boss is mad at me. And, I'm not appreciated,"
That, research shows, is the last thing you want your employees thinking.