How HR deals with workplace misunderstandings

Lack of clarity in communication leads to misunderstandings

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Misunderstanding at the workplace are rather common. With so many individuals from different backgrounds, bringing with them varied perspectives and ideas, there is bound to be some kind of conflict of ideologies and opinions.

When one individual fails to understand what the other person is trying to convey, or takes it in the wrong spirit, the phenomenon called misunderstanding takes place.

While speaking, people often fail to take note of the tone or words they are using. Very often, what the speaker means and what the listener interprets are way different. This happens due to lack of clarity in communication or the listener’s inability to comprehend. Whatever may be the reason, such kind of ineffective communication does generally lead to misunderstandings and then a big conflict.

The phrase ‘this work is going nowhere’ is commonly heard at the workplace. For most, this phrase carries a negative connotation, as it implies that speaker is unhappy with the way things are turning out or the way the team is functioning. However, the person who used these words may actually have intended to simply seek a vision to go ahead. In such situations, managers are supposed to understand where the issue or problem is and solve it appropriately. All it takes is a bit of listening.

“People tend to use inappropriate words which are taken very differently by the recipients, leading to unnecessary conflicts at workplaces.”

Sharad Sharma, CHRO, Pramerica Life Insurance

Communication

“Many a time, the reason for a misunderstanding lies in the communication channel used and the level of clarity of thought in people. To avoid misunderstandings, it is important to take a feedback from people to know whether they correctly understood what was said,” says Praveer Priyadarshi, HR Consultant & former CHRO, Jindal Stainless.

As per Mangesh Bhide, head – HR, technology & FTTx business, Reliance Jio Infocomm people tend to make assumptions and fail to clarify things.

“There is often a gap between what has been conveyed by the speaker and what the listener understood. So in such situations, we need to clarify it with the other person whether he/she understood what exactly was communicated. Also, we should have the habit of summarising our conversation so there is no room for any confusion,” says Bhide.

Bhide shares an instance where two leaders, an HOD and his immediate reportee, equally powerful and knowledgeable got into a conflict. After a discussion it was found that many a times the one who use to report to the HOD bypassed him in a lot of matters and conversations and directly reached out to the HOD’s boss. This made the HOD think that the other person disrespects him. And the reportee clarified that he thought that the HOD never had a conversation with him and did not recognise his knowledge.

“Misunderstandings generally arise when there are changes in company policies related to compensation, salary or benefits and also during layoffs. In such situations, the communication has to be very precise and accurate. It is crucial to explain to the employees why this is happening and avoid any misinformation.”

Praveer Priyadarshi, HR Consultant & former CHRO, Jindal Stainless

“This happened because between these two leaders, there was no rapport built, no exchange of ideas and no face-to-face conversations in the past. Even the boss of the HOD did not feel the need to understand why this was happening,” says Bhide. The problem got resolved after they sat and discussed their differences.

Electronic media

Sharad Sharma, CHRO, Pramerica Life Insurance, is of the opinion that most misunderstandings happen due to excessive use of electronic media for communication.

“People tend to use inappropriate words which are taken very differently by the recipients, leading to unnecessary conflicts at workplaces.”

Let’s take the example of someone writing ‘Let me clarify’ in a mail. While some people would take it positively as it means ‘sorry I meant to say this,’ but it can also be interpreted negatively by someone, depending on the emotional intelligence of the person. It can be read as ‘Oh you dumb ass! You got it all wrong.”

“There is often a gap between what has been conveyed by the speaker and what the listener understood. So in such situations, we need to clarify it with the other person whether he/she understood what exactly was communicated. Also, we should have the habit of summarising our conversation so there is no room for any confusion.”

Mangesh Bhide, head – HR, technology & FTTx business, Reliance Jio Infocomm

Misinterpretation

“Misunderstandings also take place when one fails to listen to the other person. People think that whatever they say is right and the other person is wrong. The situation gets worse when people start taking stands,” adds Sharma.

Ideological differences

A difference in opinions and ideologies also leads to conflicts and disagreements between team members or functional heads.

How HR sorts it out

As per experts, there is only one way to sort out such issues. Before it gets too ugly and out of control, both the parties need to sit together, face to face, and clear things out. The HR has to play the role of a moderator in such cases to understand the root cause of the situation and empathise with both parties. A detailed discussion paves the way for an appropriate solution to sort out things.

Since we all are working remotely, video calls and virtual meetings should be used to sort out such issues.

Sharma admits to being caught in such issues at work and reveals, “Such cases generally come to HR only when the misunderstanding has transformed into a major conflict.”

According to Sharma, “Rather than any other method of conversation, we need to sit together with the other party and sort things out. In my experience, only dialogues and conversations can effectively resolve such issues,” says Sharma.

Sharma cites the example of organisations working in a hybrid model today. There are some people who are working from home and others who are regularly working in the field or in the office. So chances of conflicts and misunderstandings between the functional heads of such teams is high. They will often come up with questions, such as ‘Why can’t our team work from home?’ In such cases, the HR has to explain the problem at hand to both the groups, facilitate a dialogue, and try to make them sit together and understand the objective, as well as appreciate the benefits of such a work model in the continuity of business.

Sometimes, even conversations may not help to clear the air. “This usually happens when people’s egos grow bigger than the company. As professionals, people should learn to discuss and weed out issues, and move on,” says Sharma.

In such cases, the HR should empathise with both the parties, try to understand both their points of view, find out what exactly is the root cause of the conflict and come up with fair and appropriate solutions. Most importantly, the HR should not take any sides.

Priyadarshi believes that it is the HR’s duty to guide and train individuals to communicate better with the other party.

“At every level the HR can play a role in resolving such differences by being neutral and understanding the cause of the issue,” mentions Bhide.

Misunderstandings generally arise when there are changes in company policies related to compensation, salary or benefits and also during layoffs, feels Priyadarshi. “In such situations, the communication has to be very precise and accurate. It is crucial to explain to the employees why this is happening and avoid any misinformation,” says Priyadarshi.

To avoid such conflicts, as individuals, first and foremost, we need to communicate clearly, listen intently, and understand correctly what the other person is trying to say. Second, if any misunderstanding snowballs into a conflict, we need to sit together with the other party and sort out everything.

“I think such issues need to be addressed without delay. If they are not tackled at the early stages, they will unnecessarily grow, and impact people’s relations in a big way,” concludes Priyadarshi.

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