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Mind your language

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Why effective communication and collaboration rely on linguistic nuances

There’s an intriguing new theory about the origin of language in human beings. It adds to the idea that language may have arisen to assist with hunting and foraging by positing that it emerged when our brains adapted to think many steps ahead, which we needed to do in order to make sophisticated stone tools. It turns out that sequence matters when creating a flint axe. And it also matters when using words. Stanford biologist Oren Kolodny hypothesises that only once we had the facility for temporal sequencing could we develop complex language.

I like this theory. Although, as a scientist, I do know that this doesn’t make it any better than the last one, or the next. Indeed, I have to wonder: why can’t language have some or all of these origins, rather than just one?

But I digress. The reason I like this theory is that it ties together three interconnected aspects of project management: collaboration, process and communication.

I have been thinking about collaboration a lot lately. It is one of those ‘motherhood and apple pie’ concepts – that is, something we are encouraged to think is important. We all believe in it and strive to make it happen. But few of us have a deep understanding of what to do to optimise it.

But language clearly plays a big part. Nature’s other accomplished collaborators are the apocrite hymenopterans – ants, bees and their kin. They also exhibit complex language, mediated, for example, by the bees’ waggle dance, and ant and termite pheromones.

What drives collaboration in both humans and other animals is simple. It is the instinct that working together creates a better chance for the next generation. It is not altruism.

Language is at the heart of good collaboration

This points us towards one of the most important aspects of successful collaboration. We have to know why we are collaborating. I like the term that McKinsey consultants Susie Cranston and Scott Keller coined: ‘meaning quotient’. If you want to encourage collaboration, you must ensure everyone understands the context and purpose of their role and the project as a whole.

This brings us back to language. It is at the heart of good collaboration. While not having a shared language does not preclude collaboration, it does make it extremely hard. This explains the emergence of pidgins where people need to work together but speak different languages.

So, assuming you do share a common tongue, what can you do to maximise collaboration? I think there are four keys to this: frequency, precision, personalisation and tone. Getting all of these right is vital.

It seems hard. Sometimes, the complexity of sharing ideas with different people feels overwhelmingly difficult. There are so many ways it can go wrong. But that’s defeatist talk.

In fact, our human languages are extraordinarily well adapted to the needs of a project manager. We seem to have the urge to talk a lot of the time. Gossip may or may not be the origin of language (as one theory posits), but it does seem to be hardwired into us. That’s why we love soap operas so much! It also explains why virtual team working is so difficult. One reason is surely that geographical separation inhibits constant chat.

Precision is also a feature of languages. Not every language is as lucky as English in having so many near-synonyms, which allow such precise gradation of meaning. But they do all have the facility to build jargon. And we project managers have played our part.

We also have the ability to personalise how we communicate with one another. English is relatively impoverished in pronouns and verb endings that distinguish who we are speaking with. But that doesn’t stop us using name variants and familiarity patterns in our speech. So, too, can we dial up the formality to acknowledge distance. And all of that runs parallel to the wide variety of choices we can make in the medium we use to communicate on a project.

And finally, there is mood, or tone. This is the number-one reason why project communication goes wrong with stakeholders, colleagues and clients. It’s also why email is such a dreadful collaboration tool. We expect text and Slack messages to be nearly devoid of mood signals and purely transactional. We expect reports and letters to consider tone carefully. But with emails, when we write them, they seem transactional. We take little care. But when we read them, we perceive minute nuances of tone which aren’t there.

Luckily, I took great care in writing this. But did I get it right?

This blog first appeared as an article in the Autumn issue of Project Journal.


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