Can bad workplace communication be fixed? An interview with Phil Simon

MNR_final2My friend and fellow author Phil Simon has a new book out today on on one my favorite subjects: the poor state of communication in the working world.

In his new book Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It, Simon explains how we got into this mess and what we can do to make things better. I interviewed him about the book and the state of communication culture.

Q: Films like Office Space lampooned the ridiculous jargon and business-speak used in American workplaces. It’s a problem we’ve had for a long time. Why is it so common?

Many reasons. We can start with management consultants, arguably some of the worst purveyors of jargon. They try to make business and management more complicated than it is. Management is a discipline, not a science. There are no immutable laws of management. Period.

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Many executives bastardize the language, and it’s natural for underlings to ape the words and expressions of their superiors.

I’d also blame marketers and salespeople. Researching the book, I discovered what I intuitively suspected: there’s greater competition than ever to occupy the top result on Google search pages. You can pay to play, but that gets pricey. Ideally, your company, service, or product shows up organically. You don’t do that by parroting the terms used by other companies.

For years many leading minds, including George Orwell, have complained about abuse of language. Are things worse now? Why do you think this is?

You’re right about Orwell, but people have been complaining about the misuse of language for centuries. (Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation is worth checking out.)

In short, yes, things are worse now. There’s the SEO argument (see above). Beyond that, there’s more content that ever out there. When you and I grew up in the 1970s, we were exposed to about 500 ads per day. That number now is 5,000. This is a ten‐fold increase over the past four decades. Even if you believe that the rate at which people use jargon has remained constant, the sheer number has increased. It’s not debatable at this point.

Lastly, we’re living in an era of accelerating technological change. Stalwarts like “friend” (now a verb) and “like” (now a noun) are taking on new meanings. There’s even a dictionary just for Twitter terms.

Neil Postman once wrote “Information is a form of garbage.” How can people more easily spot emails and internal communication that is garbage information? Are there warning signs they can look for?

Let’s start with the quantity of the emails sent. We all know people who send too many. I used to be one of them. In the book, I detail my own Pulp Fiction-like moment of clarity around email. I remember the very day that someone called me out in 2007 for confusing the team.

Some people just send rubbish, but the larger question to me is why something has to be communicated via email in the first place. Over the past two decades, email has become the de facto tool for internal communication. It’s one of the killer apps of the Internet era. As you know from your time at Automattic, that need not be the case.

Let’s say that you and I and some of our friends are scheduling a call. I can send a clear message about my availability, but so what? Even if an email is clearly written, it’s often not the best tool for the job. That goes double for task management, project management, and general collaboration. This is not 1995.


In Message Not Received, is there a story of an organization that used to depend on email but switched to modern tools? What can other organizations learn from them?

Chapter 8 contains three case studies of organizations that broke away from email as their primary communications vehicles. I detail a small business, a startup, and a larger company.

There are plenty of lessons that organizations of all sizes can learn from them. First, you don’t need to boil the ocean. You can start in a pocket of the organization and see how a tool takes root. It’s often wise to start small and iterate.

Second, realize that perfect is the enemy of good, to borrow from Voltaire. There’s no one perfect tool. One organization may love HipChat while another prefers Yammer, Jive, or Smartsheet.

Many organizations spend years searching for one, only to stick with deficient technologies at considerable cost. Thanks to cloud computing, open source software, and the freemium model, it’s never been easier to date before you get married.

Finally, don’t try to control your community. The three case studies showed me that tools evolve very organically. For instance, ride-sharing app Sidecar rolled out Jive. Its drivers don’t work in a proper office with, you know….facilities. It quickly became apparent that drivers needed information on the best local lavatories. Sidecar quickly integrated that functionality into Jive.

Most people don’t control their coworkers. If a someone reading this wished their colleagues communicated better, what can they do?

It’s important to remember Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In the context of your question, remember that most people aren’t actively trying to confuse others. They just don’t realize that they’re bloviating. We all suffer from the curse of knowledge; most of us just aren’t aware of that.

The answer to your question hinges upon a number of factors. Is the person higher up than you on the totem pole? What’s the company culture? Have you known that person for a long time? For instance, in a rigid culture, you might be cutting your own throat by questioning the words of more senior employees, even privately in a diplomatic way. All communication is contextual.

When someone is routinely confusing others, don’t be afraid to call bullshit on jargon. At a minimum, say, “I don’t follow. Could you please explain what you mean by that?” In the words of Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Remember that the word communicate means “to make common.”

Second, resist the temptation to respond via email. I abide by a three-email rule: After three, we talk. I’m not afraid to invoke it, and many groups, people, and organizations would benefit from doing something similar.

Next, ask people to define their terms. I’m a big fan of the active voice and short sentences. Message Not Received is not a tactical book, but I did include some tips on effective communication.

If the problem persists, a more serious conversation is in order. Jargon and excessive email aren’t just fodder for Dilbert cartoons. Horrible business communication is a really big problem. It inhibits true understanding and successful results, never mind overwhelming individual employees. If someone doesn’t take to constructive feedback, a new role and/or job might be in order.

Get Message Not Received on Amazon.

4 Responses to “Can bad workplace communication be fixed? An interview with Phil Simon”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Too bad libraries throw out their periodicals after a few years: I’ll bet our ancestors had some useful observations about memorandums, same as we observe e-mails being a Bad Thing.

    As I recall, memos would go out like e-mail to many people, with carbon copies, (today’s e-mail CC) and people would engage in memo wars by arguing through company wide memos. Perhaps a boss told his subordinates, “You’ve sent three, now go talk.” I recall seeing V-shaped letter boxes (as pigeon holes) on office doors so folks would “get the memo” if they were out.

    The CEO of Avis, Robert Townsend, threatened to write a memo saying “This will be the last memorandum” in order to kill memos (e-mail) in his company.

    I am going to try to remember the term Hanlon’s razor for when I’m talking to others, perhaps saying, to a less educated person, “As Hanlon always said, …”

    1. Scott Berkun

      But you’re making another excellent point here. I don’t think technology is every the true problem. It’s how we use it. There’s nothing wrong with using memos for somethings, or emails for others, or telegraphs… it’s really about the nature of the relationship between the people involved.

      I don’t entirely agree with the 3 email rule. There are definitely situations where it makes complete and effective sense to have a long email exchange. We used to write letters to each other and it’s much the same thing: a chance to have long, thoughtful exchanges.

      Of course I do agree email is abused and Phil is right to cut off misuse of email early. But email isn’t the problem – it’s someone not realizing there’s a better way to communicate what they want to communicate.

  2. Phil Simon

    I didn’t know about Townsend, but companies effectively banning internal emails seems to be growing (if not common). I abide by a three-email rule as well. It just makes sense.



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