The View from HR

A good workplace message should be received and understood

September 22, 2012 

I really love it when I get a taste of my own medicine and learn something useful.

We train thousands of managers each year in a wide range of skills. Many of these skills (“competencies”) are basic: handling conflict, managing change, delivering feedback and coaching.

I sat in on a session recently and the topic hit me hard: If you are the sender of a message, you own that message and the way it is received. In other words, failures to communicate are almost always the fault of the sender.

How can that be? I carefully crafted my message, wrote it out and punched “send” on the email. The message is what it is. Those people did not read it carefully. Any failure to understand what I mean is due to a failure on their end. Right? Wrong.

Only you know what you really intend to say and how you want it received. Only you know the audience. Only you know the limitations of the method chosen (such as email) and the way similar messages were received (misperceived) in the past. You are in the best position to predict what filters people will use as they read your message. You own it!

Meaning vs. words

Why are words, emails, lectures, memos and meetings so bad at conveying meaning? Because meaning is much more complex than words and much more likely to be viewed in a way the receiver prefers. Conveyance of words is not the same as conveyance of meaning.

Take this example. If I want everyone to understand we need their work done by next Friday for the Jones Project, is it enough to say just that?

Maybe, if there is a long history of similar messages and successful compliance. Probably not, if any part of the message can be read two ways. What does “done” mean, what does “next Friday” mean, and why next Friday – didn’t we say next month when we last met?

Own the message

Since I own the message, I better give some context to increase the chance my real meaning gets across. “There’s been a change in deadline for the Jones Project at their request. We have no flexibility. The new deadline is next Friday the 24th. I will need your finished product, ready for shipment, by 5 p.m. on the 22nd to give time for review. The courier pickup is 4 p.m. on the 23rd.”

To seal the deal, ask each recipient to email you back with their current status, whether they see any reason not to meet the deadline and when they can get you their next-to-final version for review. That feedback loop is essential to ensure an important message was both received and understood.

Did it take longer to write a good message? Sure, but much less time than explaining a service failure to Jones.

Are effective verbal messages harder to craft, send and receive? Yes! Knowing that, take a dose of this same medicine and increase the chance your true meaning is received.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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