Everyone gets the pep talk at some point in their careers: Stay positive. Take some initiative. Be a team player.
Such well-worn (or, more likely, worn-out) bromides are meant to encourage and motivate.
However, even the simplest message sent is not always the message received, says workplace performance consultant Rex Conner, and that is not good for either employee or employer.
"It will cause inefficiencies in the workplace, create conflict and it's going to hurt productivity," said Conner, lead partner and owner of Utah-based Mager Consortium. "It's really a bottom-line problem."
While short declarative sentences – "You're not a team member" – may sound clear enough from the sender's standpoint, Conner labels these trite phrases "fuzzy" communication.
"It's any time you're talking about performance on the job and the communication is open to interpretation."
Consider one real-life example, he said: When parents ask their children to clean their rooms, how often does the children's idea of what "clean" means differ from the parents'?
"Unless you clarify it, you just don't know."
In the workplace, a supervisor's exhortation to the staff to "be positive" may be delivered with the best intentions. But some may wonder if that means they shouldn't raise questions about any of the boss's ideas. And how do they reconcile that with the same supervisor's encouragement to "show initiative"?
Conner suggests pressing for more specific information. "I would say, 'Hey, boss, when you observe me being a team member, what are you observing me doing?' "
He acknowledged that such questioning requires tact, timing and diplomacy, and even then it won't always work. Conner said he once got the "be a team player" directive from a supervisor and his request for specifics did not end well.
"In this case, the boss was saying, 'I don't like you and I'm going to force you out.'"
Still, there are other situations – advertising to fill an important position, for example – when it's certainly in the company's interest to communicate clearly in order to find the best candidate for the job. Instead, many will simply provide a list of requirements such as "strong communication skills," an advanced degree and five years' experience.
"Five years of experience doesn't tell me what skills are needed for the job," Mr. Conner said. "What specific skills are we looking for that the person needs on the job?"
Without those specifics, he warned, both parties may be on a path to another fuzzy communication a few months down the road – when the company decides that you're "not a good fit."