Three communication tips that will get you out of the office by five

In an ideal work environment, the first thing many of us do in the morning is schedule the stuff we will be doing for the day, plan the things we need to get these jobs done, and then proceed to do the job subject to said schedule and plan. By doing the thinking up front we improve our chances of being out of the office by 5pm to do more interesting things.

Unfortunately there are lots of variables at work that prevent us from achieving this simple daily goal. The biggest of these variables involves the people we rely on to get things done. For me, most of humanity’s problems are, at their core, communication issues. So a good place to start to mitigate your exposure to people who jeopardise your chances at an early start on the road leading to your comfy couch at home is to communicate effectively.

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Get everything in writing.

No matter how eloquent we are in face-to-face conversations with our work colleagues, nothing seals the deal better than written confirmation of what was discussed.

Let’s say you’ve just finished a conversation with John where you instruct him to do a task with an outcome you need to complete your work on time. Follow up with an email to John that might go like this:

Dear John:

As discussed in our phone conversation, here is what you will be doing for me:

(1) You will take a data extract from the WillItWork database and turn it into an Excel spreadsheet.

(2) You will then email that Excel spreadheet to me as an attachment by 4pm today.

Thank you.

The important thing is to file emails like these. You will most likely need them come the time when you are about to follow-up on a possible non-delivery of the requirement that was discussed. These also serve as evidence to your boss that you had taken all the appropriate measures to improve the probability of your completion of the job you are responsible for on-time given the unavoidable dependency on others’ delivery of their bit.

Apply a subtle “No response will be interpreted as agreement” threat.

Don’t set yourself up for derailment by the ambiguous “input” from quibbling colleagues. Make sure you engineer your messages to force categorical responses from everyone you deal with. This principle works even at the lowest denominator of all — the question of whether the recipient of your message responds or not. Construct a message that puts non-responders under your control, and managing those who do respond will be a walk in the park. Indeed, colleagues who are chronic non-responders are, in fact, the most ideal recipients. To take full advantage of habitual non-responders, make sure you are very specific about the purpose of a communication artifact like a memo, an email, or a phone call.

Here is an example of a purposeful email message:

Dear Joe:

With regard to your request for a report on actual sales figures, here is the scope of the report I will be sending you by 4pm today:

– Sales figures for the two products you are account manager for over 5-day work week ending the 8th July.

If you are ok with the above specs let me know by 1pm today.

Thank you.

Note in the above example how: (1) the nature of the work, (2) the expectations from the recipient of the message, and (3) the time it will be completed regardless of a response or non-response are primarily under your control. Of course this does not mean you are in full control of the situation created by the requestor of the job, but in this way you mitigate the risk of loss of control over said situation by making use of as airtight a message as possible.

Be first to define terms.

Coming out of a meeting with “action items” to your name? Not a good outcome for you. But there is a way to turn this unfortunate circumstance around and come out a winner. The important thing is to take the first stab at defining the action items on your terms. If, for example, you are the poor sod who has his name placed against the meeting minutes item “Organise people morale uplift committee,” send out an email outlining exactly what you are going to do; say…

Dear all:

I’d like to confirm my action item by clarifying the outcome of this action.

Here is what I am going to do:

– Tuesday morning: Identify committee members.
– Tuesday afternoon: Email list of committee members.
– Wednesday morning: Take stock of members who decline.
– Wednesday mroning: Spell out three-point agenda.
– Wednesday afternoon: Schedule meeting and reserve meeting room.

By close-of-business Wednesday we will have achieved:

(1) Finalisation of a list of confirmed committee members; and,
(2) The first meeting organised to be attended by confirmed committee members.

Thank you.

Note how the previous two principles are applied in the above: (1) steps you will be taking to complete your assigned “action item” are all in writing, (2) the process is 90 percent under your control; i.e., no action is dependent on open-ended input from all concerned — only on categorical (yes/no, I’m-in/I’m-out) responses.

* * *

Life’s too short and nobody ever lay on their death bed regretting not spending a bit more time at the office. So by following the above simple communication principles, you stand a better chance of not losing the plot and getting a real life.

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10 Comments on “Three communication tips that will get you out of the office by five”

  1. I’d be careful with the “No response will be interpreted as agreement” method. I find that dealing with Filipinos and Asians in general pretty accurately follows what we’ve always been told about differences between Eastern and Western communications styles.

    So if John in your example was a Westerner and didn’t get back to me by 1 p.m. as requested, I’d be mildly annoyed (because that’s exactly what I’d asked him to do), but I’d interpret it as agreement with my specs and could be pretty sure he agrees as well. We’re wired that way — silence equals consent.

    Easterners are the other way around; John doesn’t reply by 1 pm, I send my report at 4 pm, there is a better-than-even chance that at 4:30 John’s telling me there’s something wrong. Because I’d asked him to confirm if the proposed specs were okay — they’re not, so he didn’t.

    So your thinking is right — make others aware that a lack of action on their part will not present an obstacle to getting your work done — but with some people, I think you have to knock the ball back to their side of the court. For instance, tell John (assuming he’s a dela Cruz or a Chang and not a Smith or a Jones) that “I need your feedback by 1 pm if anything needs to be changed, otherwise I will presume these specs are acceptable.” And of course, as you pointed out, that will be on record, and in unequivocal terms, if John decides he’s got a problem later. (because if it comes to that, of course you want to make sure it will be his problem, and not yours)

    Or, if John’s one of those really sensitive types and gets uncomfortable with offering criticism (it’s that whole ‘face’ thing, I suppose), then maybe you have to do one extra step and offer him a choice: “I can give you a report formatted this way, or one with these specs, let me know by 1 pm which one you prefer and I will wait to proceed until I hear from you.”

    1. Good scenarios to consider, BenK. Those are the ones that are usually likely to play out. The sample emails are of course over-simplifications as I dispensed of the niceties that would have interlaced those words in the real world.

      Hmmm, I realised all of a sudden that all of what you described above with regard to how an easterner would respond to these types of scenarios can be encapsulated in a single Filipino word: pakiramdaman (roughly translated: “trying to to gauge one anothers inclination to make good on one’s words”). It’s like for every word spoken, say, by a Filipino, there is an unspoken but tacitly approved ambiguity (perhaps one alien to the Western mind) that persists even after said words are exchanged. This, I believe, is what adds a layer of uncertainty in what happens next when coming out of what one thinks was a decent conversation.

      That there is one Tagalog word to describe what took you a few sentences to describe highlights how deeply ingrained this is in our culture (the opposite of the notion of efficiency — a concept that comes across easily in one word to the Western mind that cannot be articulated in a single Tagalog word).

      1. I’m re-reading this and want to make sure I have the sense of this “pakiramadaman”. It means that everyone attaches a measure of suspect to every spoken word, and the talent is to sort out how much trust to place in it? That is, it is understood that every word spoken may have an element of mistrust in it, and the trick is to figure out how much?

        Wow. Hard to be productive when every statement has that kind of padding attached to it. No wonder the legislature chases itself around in circles trying to nail something specific down.

        1. I think you nailed it, Joe if I may paraphrase: every word is suspect. So you need a heightened sense of the unspoken language at play when dealing with Filipinos.

      2. This is the single most relevant piece of info I’ve received since arriving in the Philippines for good in 2005. Like, now I know why I lose so many arguments to my wife, among other enlightenments . . . thanks.

    2. agree

      dunno if its an asian thing or a filipino thing… but there’s always that annoying tendency for people to keep quiet when something goes wrong or doesnt go according to plan. no one wants to be the bearer of bad news.

      at first i assumed it was because they were stalling while trying to fix it themselves but more often the case is that everyone just doesnt know what to do and everyone is just waiting for someone to take the initiative.

      learned this the hard way. never assume silence means everything’s ok. nowadays i get extremely paranoid whenever everyone is quiet.

      “pakiramdaman” means fine-tuning you spider-senses to tingle *especially* when no one is talking. Make a mental note of the initiative-level and openness of the people you’re dealing with and take that into primary consideration when interpreting what silence means

      1. I believe there is also that element of hoping that an issue will resolve itself or simply go away if it is ignored or not talked about. Kind of like a derivative of the “bahala na” attitude.

  2. My God, you threw me back to work again. The horror! The horror!* I lived by the principle of the A, B, C drawer, where into “A” went the stuff to attend to immediately, into “B” went the stuff to schedule a response to shortly, as the schedule permits, and into “C” went the stuff that was not worth my time, unless someone followed up on it. You’d be surprised how much work you can avoid by shoving stuff into the “C” drawer. Computers have such drawers, too, amazingly enough.

    *”Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad. Also “Appocalypse Now” uttered by the late, great Marlon Brando.

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