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This Formula Will Help You Close Communication Gaps On Your Team

This Formula Will Help You Close Communication Gaps On Your Team

Not long ago, I sat in on a meeting between one of my clients and his boss. His boss requested the meeting because he had recently observed or heard about several incidents in which my client’s behavior had a negative impact on other team members. He wanted to hear my client’s perspective. He also wanted to communicate clear expectations for future behavior.

What was most striking to me during this meeting was the surprise and dismay my client experienced when he heard about the impact his behavior was having on others. He genuinely did not intend to cause harm, and seemed quite unaware of what he was doing that created that impact.

There was clearly a huge chasm between my client’s intent in these interactions, and the impact on others. I’ve written before about these gaps between intent and impact, and the effect they can have on team communication and cohesion.

Gaps like these open all the time in the normal course of human interactions. Often, they don’t cause serious problems, or they’re easily closed. Sometimes, though, communication gaps create ongoing rifts between team members. Left untended, these rifts get in the way of results.

As a leader, your job is to not tolerate communication gaps, and to build a team with the skills to recognize and close them. Otherwise, the level of trust between team members will never be high enough to support great performance.

There are only two ways to close communication gaps when they open. One way is to be clear about your intentions whenever you deliver a message. Then, proactively check out whether you’re inadvertently creating a different impact.

The other way to close gaps is to provide specific, immediate feedback about the impact you experience when you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s words or actions. As a leader, it’s your job to model this sort of feedback, and make it clear to your team that you expect the same from each of them.

Formula for giving effective feedback

Here’s the formula for effectively giving specific and immediate feedback when someone does something that has a negative impact on you:

“When you (X), I think and feel (Y) + [Clarifying question].”

For example, imagine you’re leading a project team that meets weekly, and one of the team members consistently shows up 15 minutes late to meetings. You might say something like, “When you come late to every meeting, I think you’re not committed to the project. Is there some truth to that, or is something else going on?”

Interpersonal GapI think many teams shy away from giving feedback because they’ve seen it done unskillfully. It makes things worse rather than better. For example, instead of making the statement above, someone says: “I’ve never had anyone on a team who’s as uncommitted as you. You need to shape up and start getting here on time.”

There are three big differences between these two statements, and these differences can make or break the conversation:

1. The first statement is all about you, the speaker. It attributes nothing to the late-coming team member, but does describe the impact of his behavior. This may be new information for the team member. In contrast, the second statement says nothing about the impact on you. It’s all about the team member, and is pretty much guaranteed to elicit defensiveness.

2. The first statement describes the facts of the situation (“you come late to every meeting”), and separates those facts from the impact on you (“I think you’re not committed to the project”). The second statement includes nothing about the facts. It presents the impact (“I think you’re not committed”) as if it were the truth about the team member.

3. The first statement ends with a question that acknowledges that the impact the team member is having may not be what he intends. It invites engagement and conversation that can lead to mutual understanding. The second statement closes the door on any further engagement.

These differences illustrate the underlying principles of giving effective feedback:

  • Give clear, specific examples of the behavior that you’re observing. This is what fills in the “X” of the feedback formula.
  • Take responsibility for how you’re interpreting the behavior and its impact on you. Use “I” rather than “you,” and don’t present your experience of the other person as if it were the truth.
  • Be curious about what you may be missing. Ask a question that invites the other person to respond to what you’re saying. Assume that there’s always more to the story than your perspective.

When you follow these principles, you greatly increase your chances of making things better rather than worse. Here are some examples of what it might sound like.



Example of question

You need to learn how to manage conflict better and stop blowing up at me. When you raise your voice, tell me what I’m doing wrong, and then walk away, I think you’re attacking me and I feel defensive. Is the impact I’m describing what you intended?
You need to make more of an effort in writing these reports. When you submit your reports with at least one typo on every page, it creates more work for me and I think you’re not making an effort. Is there something that I’m missing here?
I can’t believe you interrupted me three times this morning! You made us look bad as a team. When I was giving my presentation this morning, you spoke up three times while I was in the middle of a sentence. It threw me off, and I think it made us look bad as a team. Can you tell me what your intention was?
You need to take more initiative in communicating with me. When you don’t take the initiative to give me weekly updates on how the project is going, I have to track you down to get information and I often don’t have what I need to update my boss. Is there a reason for why you’re doing it this way?

The bottom line is that giving effective feedback is hard. Most of us aren’t very skillful in doing it. But the more you practice with the feedback formula and the guiding principles above, the more success you’ll have.

And the more your team develops skills in giving each other specific and immediate feedback, the better results you’ll get. Instead of communication gaps that hinder mutual commitment, they’ll build the trust necessary to produce great work. Who wouldn’t want that?

What about you? What have you found effective in giving specific and immediate feedback? What effect have you seen communication gaps have on team functioning? I’d love to hear your comments!

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