Maria Stubbe has investigated instances of miscommunication in the workplace, where communication is ineffective or problematic, leading to negative outcomes for the individual or the organisation as a whole. The aims in doing this are three-fold:
- To explore how to usefully model miscommunication in the workplace context, to enable methods for more effective communication to be developed;
- To identify strategies effective communicators use to avoid or repair miscommunication;
- To consider implications for further research, training or organisational learning.
In looking at miscommunication, it is important to remember that any interaction takes place on more than one level. We have found it helpful to analyse discourse on two levels:
- Micro-level: viewing language as a tool for getting work done. In a workplace situation, this is usually the referential content of an utterance.
- Macro-level: viewing language as a way of constructing the institutional culture, the social identities of the participants, and the power relationships between them. Seen in this way, language is a means of 'doing' or contesting power.
Miscommunication can come about because of a breakdown in shared understanding of what is being conveyed on either of these levels, the second being as important as the first.
We have been investigating instances of effective communication and break-downs in communication among members of a factory production team.
The members of this team faced many complex barriers to communication that were inherent in the nature of their work:
- The factory environment: a high level of background noise, separation of workers from one another. This necessitated a lot of non-verbal communication and communication via other media, such as radio.
- The large range of different communicative tasks, varying from brief routine interactions to complex problem-solving interactions from one minute to the next.
- Changes in production procedure meant higher demands on workers' English language skills and literacy skills, which varied widely between co-workers.
- A move to a co-operative management framework, instead of a hierarchical structure, was changing the dynamics of communication at the factory.
- A lot of factory work is highly context-embedded, making it necessary to be part of the in-group to know what is going on:
Explanation of contextual information given after dialogue:
Lesia: what's the speed [referring to the conveyor belt on the packing line]
Sue: speed slow one twenty [number refers to a dial reading]
Lesia: thanks a lot [4 second pause]
Sue: hurry up [addressed to someone else]
Lesia: got no idea eh brother [5 second pause]
keep 'em eyes on the rejects [sub-standard packaging]
keep 'em eyes on the rejects er Sue please and also on your weight [refers to a running joke amongst the team about diets/losing weight]
The team were found to have developed a number of strategies that aided effective communication.
They felt the most important thing when talking to a co-worker was getting the message across. But deeper analysis of the factory interactions shows that effective communication is about participants jointly negotiating meaning rather than simply transmitting information. These points are reflected in the strategies the workers used to prevent and repair communication breakdowns:
- The team developed systems for exchanging information, such as always using the same phrase to convey the same idea.
- Repeating information to make sure a co-worker got it properly:
- Repetitions underlined:
Ginette: copy kiwi copy kiwi
Russell: what's up
Ginette: stand by and I'll give you the figures bro
Russell: yep go
Ginette: for the line one acma rainbow flight we need twenty four tonnes twenty four
Russell: yo bro
Ginette: then we are on orange wave orange wave # for the line one orange wave we need two hundred and fifty six tonnes two five six
- Workers frequently check or seek clarification of information:
Russell: copy Lesia
Russell: bin twenty nine should be your last bin on line one
Lesia: bin twenty nine did you say
- Instructions are made very direct and explicit:
- Ginette: you must fill them out properly the purpose of these sheets is to give information for people up there on how these the efficiencies of these lines when we fill out a sheet that says we nearly packed six thousand cases in three- three and a half hours that's a load of shit that's running the machine at five hundred packets a minute fill them out properly [General laughter]
- Problems are explored until a solution emerges.
- Issues are followed up in different ways as workers paid attention to the social dimension of communication, e.g. the importance of humour and achieving solidarity with co-workers.
Interactions are often best analysed as connected episodes in an ongoing dialogue, rather than as a series of separate interactions. For example, the excerpt by Ginette, a factory manager, above, was referred to by many of the co-workers later in that shift and the following shift, as they worked together to understand what Ginette wanted and to make sure they carried out instructions properly:
Lesia: but now they try to take out the zero no more zeros
Simon: no cos the zero doesn't mean anything, the zero is a nothing that there is the main one four five six seven but the zero zero is only just something in front of it
Lesia:but why do you think you would say that when Ginette was explaining that this morning
Simon: oh I wasn't over here I only just realised this morning when you come over you see
The summary above draws upon the following published research:
- Stubbe, Maria (2000). Talk that works: evaluating communication in a factory production team. New Zealand English Journal 14: 55-65.
- Stubbe, Maria (2000). "Just do it ...!" Discourse strategies for 'getting the message across' in a factory production team. In John Henderson (ed.) Proceedings of the 1999 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society.
Please see our list of publications on Miscommunication in the Bibliographies section.