You probably never heard of Gunter Schabowski, but he’s one of the most important historical figures of the last 40 years. He became one, quite accidentally, due to a rare example of poor communication leading to something great.
In 1989, Berlin was still a divided city, but the Iron Curtain was close to crumbling. A legal loophole allowed East Germans to flee into Hungary and from there cross into West Germany. Eager to control the situation, the East German government decided to issue temporary permits through what they called the ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’ (ironic, we know!). Their real intention, though, was to placate the masses since the visas weren’t intended to be in effect until a later, read: never, date. Except they didn’t communicate that to our man, Gunter Schabowski, a low-level member of the politburo who had a drinking problem and was chosen to deliver the message on national television.
On November 9, 1989, he stumbled on air and when asked when the new visas would go into effect. Gunter paused, and then responded, “Immediately. Without delay.” Chaos ensued and Gunter further cemented this position by saying everyone who already had a passport qualified for the visa without needing to apply for a new one. As a result, hordes of people flocked to the Berlin Wall and guards had no idea what to do, clueless about the conflicting orders. Soon after, the barriers came down and the Cold War effectively ended. All because someone didn’t properly brief a low-level politician who liked to hit the bottle. Pretty crazy, right?
Now, this is an example of miscommunication gone right. But more often than not, the opposite is true. Just look at what happened with the Treaty of Wuchale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, or even how George Washington started a World War because he pretended he could speak French. Human beings can be (and often are) very poor at communicating. Why? Let’s dive in:
Human Beings are Terrible Communicators, and It’s Not Their Fault
We tend to be very trusting by nature. Be it with people, technology, social, or governmental institutions, everything. We might even say too trusting, often with results that range from disappointing to tragic. Still, if we didn’t suppress thoughts of worst-case scenarios, we’d never be able to get up in the morning and leave the house. That’s the basis of Timothy Levine’s “default to truth” theory. One that gains especial relevance in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 book, “Talking to Strangers,” which deconstructs our collective inability to communicate effectively with people we don’t know. The smallest reaction, facial expression, or sound can have a profound impact on how we exchange thoughts and ideas, ultimately showcasing the need to approach strangers “with caution and humility.”
This is both our responsibility and that of the person receiving the information-- something that brings to the fore issues pertaining to our inherent biases, distinct backgrounds, unique education paths, different morals and values, and so on. It makes perfect sense. Just take a good look at the world around us and notice how impossible it seems for people to be on the same page about pretty much anything. So the question arises: if we perceive and interpret the world differently, how can we communicate effectively to benefit everyone? Most importantly, should we default to truth when communicating with strangers?
Let’s narrow this issue down and bring those charged ideas into the workplace, which features both people we (think we) know and complete strangers. Here, clarity is needed at all times as miscommunication can have a profound impact on productivity, time, money, and well-being.
Are We Working with Strangers?
Most people age 25 to 34 stay at a given job for an average of only 3.2 years. For all intents and purposes, this means that more often than not, people who work alongside us are strangers. The time we spend with them while in a professional environment doesn’t necessarily mean knowing their life story, their psychological and social traits, and certainly doesn’t allow for the type of understanding often associated with a deep and intimate relationship. Furthermore, as work responsibilities become more globalized, we have exposure to more people, but also less depth. In a big company, for example, “knowing” a co-worker might mean interacting with them for just a few meetings and exchanging a handful of emails. In general, it’s not unreasonable to assume we’re working with strangers every day.
Benefits of Improving Communication
In order to test and increase the levels of communication, Malcolm Gladwell proposes what organizational psychologists have been asking for a long time: for us to examine our own behavior and thought processes, and act accordingly. Ultimately, our goal is to achieve positive interactions that service organizational goals that also benefit the individual. In other words, we all want to be in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.
Still, sobering statistics detail that 60% of people face a crisis at least once a month due to poor communication. That type of number may not be surprising but needs to be reckoned with and solved. After all, the upside is enormous. Communicating effectively can have immeasurably positive effects on the workplace, including:
- Improving employment engagement
- Increasing productivity
- Eliminating communication silos
- Reducing employee turnover
- Eliminating email overload
- Increasing employee advocacy
- Improving customer satisfaction and retention
- Building a stronger company culture
- Improving interdepartmental communication
And yet, 60% of companies still don't have a long-term strategy for how they communicate internally.
Try These Methods
Here’s a small list of things you can do to start shaking up the current structure while fostering a positive and rewarding work environment built upon good communication practices.
Empower Workers with Information and be Transparent
Information is king. 74% of workers feel like they’re missing out on company news, which is an exceedingly large number given how easy it is to fix. A case study conducted by HEC Professor Charles-Henri Besseyre des Horts has shown that companies that are more transparent with their workers tend to be more productive. This happens because transparency allows workers to situate where the company is as well as their positioning within it at all times, offering clarity and mitigating issues like self-doubt or self-worth. Also, the more information workers have, the more empowered they will feel to complete tasks with confidence and direction.
Focus on Clear Messaging
When asked about the company’s values and objectives, every worker (no matter where they sit on the corporate ladder) should be able to articulate them clearly and without hesitation. Yet, statistics show us that 72% of workers don't have a full understanding of the company's strategy. The aim here is to decrease uncertainty by giving workers a clear direction, which ultimately will lead to a less stressful and more efficient environment. Of course, goals are always changing based on unforeseeable circumstances. A few good ways to keep workers up-to-date include regular newsletters, ‘sit downs,’ and making use of a company’s intranet.
As perpetuated by Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Well, with great responsibility also comes great motivation. By improving accountability, we are essentially offering an incentive to improve work practices while encouraging workers to communicate with each other more effectively.
Promote an “It’s Okay to be Wrong” Environment
We all know that there are few sentences in the English language that rival the pleasure of hearing “you are right.” Adam Grant, a notable organizational psychologist, makes a compelling case for the opposite. “You are wrong” can be just as joyful, if not more, as it ultimately promotes curiosity and a flexible, open mind. In his recent book, “Think Again,” Grant relies on evidence to show how creative geniuses are not attached to one identity and are always willing to rethink their stances. In fact, people who admit to not knowing (see also: Socrates) and seek critical feedback tend to lead more productive and innovative teams. This may be immensely helpful in creating a work environment in which people are comfortable being wrong and having their ideas challenged, instead of defaulting to defensive behavior that reinforces negative attitudes and promotes conflict.
Default to the “Default-To-Truth” Theory
Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusion after writing “Talking to Strangers” is that it would be absolutely disastrous if we decided to stop trusting people. Instead, he recommends we “accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers” and strive to be thoughtful, humble, and mindful of context when trying to understand other people’s actions. So we suggest you foster a "default to truth" mentality at your workplace. It’s crucial that everyone on your team assumes that their co-workers have the best intentions at all times, especially during conflict.
Your goal should be to build processes and tools that compensate our limits in communication and adjust them based on current circumstances. Ultimately, the success story of any business is achieved through the collaboration of a diverse group of people who have accountability, work with clearly defined goals, learn how to properly communicate, and be flexible in their approach to handling problems and conflict.