How to improve team communication (also remotely)

To improve team communication you need to first step in your team’s shoes.

Go back to when you had just joined a new team – how was it to start a new project and being thrown into it with little to no guidance?

Yes, your manager sat down with you and gave you a run-down of what you needed to know – but how could you be expected know as much as people who worked on that same project for months?

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The more you grow into leadership, the higher the chances are that you’ll be the one doing the explaining and setting people off to a great start – and you’ll be the one overseeing team communication as a whole. That’s what sets high performing teams apart.

There are good and bad ways of doing it and in this post we’ll look at what it takes to do it well. Check out also what I’ve written specifically about remote communication.

Specifically, I’ll be sharing with you two concepts that will come in handy when your goal is to improve team communication efficiently in a time-sensitive setting – doesn’t matter if you’re in the same room or you are a remote team – these two concepts always apply.

Mainly, this is relevant for how you communicate with your team, and secondly, this will help you understand more the communication dynamics you see.

The first concept is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and the second one is called the Curse of Knowledge – fancy name, I know.

They are both a form of bias and they both have to do with how much you assume that the other person knows.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The story of the Dunning-Kruger effect is a fun one. In 1995 a man robbed two banks at gunpoint and without disguise. CCTV recorded him and he got caught to his complete astonishment. He could not understand how it was possible that the police found him.

You see, this man had a plan. He knew from childhood that messages written on paper with lemon juice were only visible after heating up the paper and the ink. According to logic then, lemon juice was effectively invisible ink, and if lemon juice is invisible ink, putting lemon juice on your face would make you effectively invisible.

If you completely lack knowledge and ability on any given topic, you will also be unable to recognize your lack of ability on it.

Because it was so absurd, people got curious about what went on in that man’s head. What they found is that not everyone is able to recognize his or her incompetence on one topic: only the people that already have a certain level of competence on something will have a meter to measure how much they do or do not know. So if you are absolutely rubbish at basic chemistry and bank robbery, you will not be able to understand how terrible the idea of using lemon juice as disguise is.

Back to our example, this means that your ability to get someone on board in a new situation also depends on how much this person already knows:

  • if this person is completely new to the project, he or she will be less able to understand the full extent of the work ahead;
  • if the person has instead worked on similar roles or projects before, he or she will understand you extremely well.

Strange, isn’t it? Especially if you think that the people that need your explanation the most are the ones less able to understand it and make good use of it!

The Curse of Knowledge

The second bias is called the curse of knowledge and it has to do with how much you assume that the person in front of you already knows. Thing is, you often unconsciously assume they know as much as you do.

This is why you will talk to them and describe the road ahead in a way that you think is clear, but it’s actually not. For example you may be using jargon or technical terminology that is part of your daily life: you have learned and absorbed the meaning of all acronyms and terms, and you unconsciously assume that most of them will be clear to the other person as well. 

The more you know about one topic, the more difficult it will be to understand how little others know about it and act accordingly

This is also why for example some teachers are so terrible at their job: they have been explaining the same concepts for decades and they have completely lost the perception of how difficult they are to students that hear them for the first time. 

So, the curse of knowledge makes it difficult for you to clearly explain something you know well, and the Dunning-Kruger effect makes it difficult for others to even see what clarifications they need from you.

If you want to improve team communication, you need to eradicate these bias from your team.

Improve team communication despite bias

Well the good news is that there are ways for you to overcome bias, and you’ve already taken the first step: you are aware of them and this alone will enable you to identify them next time.

For example, if you hear someone in your team constantly complaining about how he and his colleagues just “don’t manage to talk to each other” even though he swears he does his best to be clear, chances are that one or two of these bias are at play. Try to observe this also in how you communicate.

And just to make sure, here are a few tips:

  1. Keep an eye open for how much you assume the other person knows, especially in one-to-one meetings, and when in doubt ask – don’t be afraid of the other person feeling treated like an idiot, in case point out that you are only asking if he understood to avoid misunderstandings later on.
  2. As a rule of thumb: avoid jargon and acronyms, or if you need to use them, make sure the other person knows them;
  3. When in doubt: simplify, use a language anybody can understand. Metaphors, numbers and sketches are all brilliant tools. I remember one tax advisor explaining a complex legal and financial system to me and drawing stick figures on a piece of paper to get the point across. It took 5 minutes and I remembered it, had he made no effort we would have been stuck in an endless back-and-forth.

So to recap: if you want to improve team communication, save time, communicate more efficiently and faster, keep this in mind:

  • your assumption on how much the other person knows may be the root cause of the problem
  • avoid technical terminology until you are sure the other person knows it
  • whenever you can, simplify

If you use these three points to define your communication style on a daily basis, you’ll be able to get people up to speed on anything in less time, and possibly save yourself and them an endless tirade of back and forth, misunderstandings and unnecessary friction.

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