Getting bitten by the leadership bug usually means that you can't wait to get your ideas out into the world and to inspire others. Communication is rarely flawless right out of the gate, however. And while you always can work on core elements like active listening, empathy, awareness of connotation and specific methods of storytelling, there's another big hurdle that even some of the best leaders don't see coming.

The communication blunder that routinely prevents individuals from moving forward is failing to clarify your own personal systems, and assuming that others already know or can decipher those systems with little effort.

For example, let's say that, in your bullet journal, your system is to bold or star priority items. You use this simple shorthand so often that you carry it over into a project memo automatically. While veteran team members might already know what you mean from their experience working with you, new team members can be confused about why certain items are in bold. Do they need specific team members, tools or authorizations? Are they the items you've fully approved? Do you need to provide more information about them at a later date?

Clear and simple to you, a potential minefield for someone else.

Assumption and a lack of clarification can cause trouble.

Now, sometimes, people can make an educated guess about your system, get it right and proceed just as you want. But often, people are truly confused. They might hesitate to ask because they don't want to look like they don't know or can't figure it out. That can lead them to making unnecessary mistakes or, at best, being slower to do what you need them to do.

Or let's say that the people on the new team you're working with do ask--all 30 of them. Now you have to take the time to field the same basic question 30 times, whereas if you'd just clarified your intent or meaning from the get-go, you'd already be free to focus on other work.

Yet another scenario? You reference or use your system without explaining it during a presentation. Instead of easily following along with you, your audience is thrown off by the need to understand your references. As they focus on those fuzzy elements and try to sort them out, they miss the essential points, and your presentation doesn't have the effect it might have.

While this issue can creep up simply because of basic informational bias, you have to be wary of technology tipping the scales against you, too. For example, if an application you use doesn't have a way to make a specific identification or categorization and you try to "make do", others can be lost in how you are labeling unless you explain your rationale and process.

Here are four ways to get away from the problem:

  1. Ask yourself if your materials or what you're saying leaves unanswered questions. The answer to "What does this mean?" should be clear.
  2. Test yourself. Send out your materials or present to a few key people you trust to see if they are able to understand. Revise based on their feedback.
  3. Offer the key to your code. This can mean making a notation at the top or bottom of a memo, providing a training document, defining some terms upfront or as you go, or sending a quick email explaining how you're going to get around a technical limitation.
  4. Be consistent. If you're going to have a personal code, don't veer from it unless something new in the business requires the adaptation. People need to be able to be able trust that your meaning hasn't changed from one communication to the next.

The more hectic the business and everyday world becomes, the more tempting it is to try to try to streamline what we need to get across. But when we attempt to streamline with our own unique, personal system, while also assuming that others have all the information we do, we unintentionally can alienate others and create anxiety.

While you want to avoid bogging others down with data and details they don't need, don't assume people automatically know everything. When in doubt, always take the two seconds or line of ink necessary to erase potential ambiguity in a way that respects your listener's intelligence, experience and skills.

Published on: Sep 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.