Are Your Communications in Context?


Once upon a time there was a scientist who worked at a company in a highly-regulated industry – let’s call her Olivia.  When she started at the company, she was hired to conduct quality assurance work – testing new and potential products, troubleshooting formulations and processes, and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for new processes and procedures.  She got along well with her colleagues, enjoyed her work very much, and received glowing annual reviews. Over the years, her responsibilities grew to include reviewing procedures and reports written by her colleagues.  In addition to conducting tests herself, she was now responsible for identifying discrepancies in tests that other people had conducted, and making sure any deviations from standard protocols were documented satisfactorily.

After a few years, Olivia decided to cut her working hours to half-time. She gave up the lab work, and focused on reviewing SOPs and product development reports of her colleagues, notifying them of deviations from the established protocols, and ensuring that they were corrected in a timely manner.  While she missed the daily interactions with her colleagues, this provided the needed balance in her personal life.  However, at her next annual review, she was surprised to learn that her peers had reported problems with her attitude, and her overall rating had been downgraded.

What happened?  She was still doing exactly the same type of regulatory oversight work that she had been doing before.  However, she was no longer in the lab, so she no longer had regular, daily contact with the other scientists.  In fact, the only time most of them heard from her was when she was pointing out a problem and demanding it be fixed by a certain date.

In another situation, Jason was trying to contact a potential seminar speaker, to confirm details of his upcoming talk.  As the date of the talk got closer, Jason got more and more nervous as the speaker did not answer emails.  Jason mentioned this problem to a co-worker who knew the speaker, and who suggested Jason send a text message with his question instead.  Jason did, and less than 5 minutes later he had his answer.

What changed?  In this case, the message was the same, but the method of delivery changed.  With the deluge of emails, the speaker easily missed one from Jason, but fewer people texted him, so the message stood out.  Since it required a quick, factual answer, it was easy for the speaker to answer quickly.

In each of these cases, a small change to a single aspect of the communication (or attempted communication) either caused or solved a problem.

In the first case, it was Olivia’s relationship with her colleagues that changed.  Instead of being one of them, she was now the enforcer from above, and only appeared to point out their mistakes.  Without the pleasantries of small talk and shared technical experiences, her relationship with the scientists quickly faded.  They came to dread hearing from Olivia, and their ratings of her performance reflected that fact.

In the second case, it was not the relationship but the method of communication that changed.  These days, we have a plethora of communication methods from which to choose (face to face, phone, email, text, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, ACS Network, LinkedIn…..).  By identifying the method his colleague preferred, Jason was able to make it easy for him to respond, and Jason got the information he needed in a timely manner.

Communication is one of the most important non-technical skills in the workplace today, and the methods available for communication are continually evolving.  One of the best things you can do when planning your communications (and you do plan them, don’t you?) is to put yourself in the place of your intended audience.  What do they want or need to know, in what format will the information be most useful to them, do they need any context, and so on.  By taking a few moments to consider the best way to convey your message to the recipient, you will maximize the value of your communications and enhance your own reputation.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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