Over-Communicating is Really Stupid

by Elizabeth Williams

If had a dollar for every social media post from the past 12 weeks telling me that the best thing an organization can do in a crisis is to over-communicate, I’d be self-isolating on a yacht somewhere and hoarding really nice toilet paper.

In fact, a quick Google search on the idea of over-communicating coupled with the term COVID yields over 19,300 results. And, here’s what’s really weird: the Internet seems to have reached a consensus — yeah, the same Internet that can’t agree that the world is round. The Internet’s verdict is that over-communicating is good.

By that logic, if a beer is good and two beers is better, then 17 beers must be better still. Ask any college student how the over-drinking is going. We don’t want our communications to end up on a cold bathroom floor at 4am begging the world to stop spinning, do we? No. That’s why over-communicating is just as stupid as over-drinking.

What is over-communicating?

Over-communicating is based on the lazy assumption that more information is always better, and quite frankly it’s not. However well-meant it might be, over-communication in practice looks less like a lovely tray full of glasses and more like a crowd-control water cannon taking aim at employees from ten feet away.

It is a safe statement that employees do not like water cannon. At best a steady carpet-bombing of emails, posters, webinars, social media, and virtual meet-ups are a lot of noise. But the problem is actually worse because it shifts the responsibility for making sense of the deluge from the organization to the employee.

Whether we are staring down a Scary Global Pandemic or just trying to get through the end of the quarter, it’s the organization’s job to make sense of the world and deliver information in that context.  So over-communicating ultimately just confuses people and eventually irritates them. Not sure what I mean? Take a look at your inbox and tell me you’re on top of all the information coming at you.

Why organizations over-communicate

In times of change, employees look to their employers to help put their work into context. Since it’s easier to prioritize volume over common sense, overwhelmed communicators tend to click ‘send’ far too many times.

It may feel like communication but it’s just noise. I would argue, the greater the pressure to communicate, the greater the need to demand the time required to coordinate, review and prioritize messages so we don’t get into a state of total overwhelm.

Overwhelmed employees do what anyone would do and that’s tuning everything they can’t easily sort into a neat bucket of meaning. Like anyone struggling to make sense of things, employees gravitate to comfortable, convenient sources they trust. Sometimes that’s their pal in IT or a random person they overhear in the lunchroom. Hello, rumours.

Just say no

When all the webinars and helpful emails are telling us to spray information across the landscape like champagne in a locker room, how do we resist the urge?  Start with a deep breath and think about:

  • What do you want people to do?
  • What behaviours do you want people to adopt or keep?
  • What are the most urgent outcomes?
  • What are the desired business outcomes?
  • Listen to your employees – how are they using information?
  • How can we adjust type, frequency and cadence?

Delete anything that says you should over-communicate. It’s not helping.

For more tips, check out the Swear Jar Podcast episode, Over Communicating is Really Stupid.

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