Employee Behavior and Communication

Greg Hughes had an insightful, reflective post about behavioral problems vs. communication problems. I was about to comment on it, but it got me thinking enough to write my own post.


The distinction between behavior and communication is very interesting to consider. I see communication as a special kind of behavior, certainly the most important in a knowledge-worker environment. It is through communication that we convey facts that are critical for business operation. But we also (intentionally or not) transfer information that is irrelevant to business operations, and we transfer emotional states, which may in some cases be counterproductive to business operations.

When the IT support person listens to the caller, he can reasonably expect to hear the information he needs to do his job. The process and the formal, structured communication you describe can certainly facilitate his doing his job. In the absence of such structure and formality, the IT support person may be forced to weed out many other things, including all of the caller's frustrations and impatience from any number of unmet expectations. The support person may be ill-trained for such “weeding out”. And after weeding out, he may find that critical information is missing. Inefficiency and a productivity drop is the result.

However, a support person who demands "just the facts, ma'am" in pursuit of 100% efficiency is limiting his own success. The very process of weeding out seemingly irrelevant information may reveal problems that are solvable, but unanticipated by a structured process. These are areas for superior and differentiated customer service. Therefore, any good customer service center will include both structured communication (likely automated through an IVR) and unstructured communication.

I agree that managers label behavioral problems as communication problems, and here's why I think they do it. Managers are given responsibility over people, and are frequently confronted by behavior problems in those people. However, we live in an open society that encourages diversity of opinion, free speech and expression and toleration of dissent. We are fortunate to live in such a society. Consequently, managers hesitate to use their authority to alter people's behavior. It is far easier for them to label behavioral problems as "communication" problems. Such a label diminishes the perceived magnitude of the problem. It can serve to absolve a manager from solving a behavior problem. Such a manager is able to hide behind "It's a free country!" and do nothing. This is how some managers resolve the conundrum of being responsible without having complete control.


Managers need to realize that cooperation is difficult or impossible when individuals perpetually exercise their personal freedoms. For example, you may be free to mislead and betray others, but by doing so, you destroy any possibility of their help and cooperation. The difficult task managers face is to understand the cooperative effort deeply, communicate it to their constituents, and identify and correct behaviors that are counterproductive to the cooperative effort. This can sometimes show that behaviors that seem problematic aren’t and that behaviors that don’t seem problematic actually are. For example, bitter complaints about a current business process may seem problematic but may be hiding good ideas for improved efficiency. A manager’s willingness to “roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty” by completing line work may not seem problematic, but may undermine, demoralize, and diminish the value of line workers.

Tags: Business, Philosophy, Politics

Updated at: 19 February 2007 9:02 AM