The Most Common Mistake in Business - And How to Overcome It

Over the last several months in my current role, I’ve observed the good and bad of business practi...

Over the last several months in my current role, I’ve observed the good and bad of business practices. I’ve seen successful people shine in front of executive audiences, and I’ve seen the opposite end of the spectrum too. I've made my share of mistakes, as well. So far in my experience, the most common type of mistake I’ve witnessed is ineffective communication.

“Communication” is a broad, often over-used term. To peel the proverbial onion, I’ve found that there are generally four types of ineffective communication - and I'll admit I've made every mistake that follows.


The Most Common Mistake in Business - And How to Overcome It
First and most common is incomplete information. Far and away, what people fail to provide most often is context. People either omit the background information necessary to the recipient’s decision-making, or they do not provide the expectations necessary to help the recipient’s comprehension. For example, teams often send out emails with their quantitative results from recent launches. But more often than not, these emails do not indicate what the original expectations were, leaving the reader to guess as to whether the data are bad or good. This generally leads to follow up questions, like “what was the target?”, “should we be happy with these figures?”. When readers have to ask follow-up questions, it tends to be a sign of incomplete information.


The second type of ineffective communication happens when we communicate, but to the wrong audience. For small companies, it’s relatively easy to ensure all team members are in the loop, and so everyone is able to act with the right information. But as companies grow, so do the opportunities to fail providing the right information to the right people. Almost every time, the wrong audience stems from omissions rather than inclusions, i.e., you’re more likely to get in trouble for not communicating to the right people, than when you do communicate to the wrong people. (There are, of course, exceptions, such as with privileged information.)


Third is the error of delayed information. You might provide all the right details and to the right people, but if it is late, it may be worthless. In the information era we live in, timely communication can be the difference between making a brilliant decision or missing out on the opportunity. For any company, the speed and quality of decision-making is the make-or-break factor influencing its success.


Finally, the last type of ineffective communication, and potentially most egregious, is inaccurate information. Fortunately, this is not common, but when it does happen, severe consequences may loom. The best way to resolve this issue is to be quick to correct — i.e., as soon as possible, acknowledge the inaccuracy. You don’t have to necessarily solve it — although that would be ideal — just admitting the error can often prevent subsequently unintended grief.

While the most common mistake in business, ineffective communication is also most preventable. The following three simple tips may help us overcome the pitfalls:

If you ever question whether you are sufficiently communicating, the answer is no.


When you have doubt, chances are others are wondering too. Use this as an opportunity to verify that everyone is on the same page by communicating more proactively. Put differently, the harm of under-communicating is usually much greater than the harm of over-communicating.

CC = FYI.


We all struggle with email overload. One way to help your recipients is through proper usage of the CC line. Use the CC for anyone who might benefit from the information, but is not required to respond. It helps the reader triage through the deluge of messages, and helps prevent accidental omission of key stakeholders. When I am cc'd on emails, I'll always skim it for information, but only respond to a small fraction of them, when absolutely required.

Remember the fourth C.


Much has been written about the three C’s of communication: Consistency, clarity, and courtesy. I’d like to propose a fourth C: Context. Context matters. Think of it this way: the cost of providing context (a few extra keystrokes and a few more minutes on the sender’s behalf) is much lower than the cost of failing to provide context (confused stakeholders, inaction, poor decision-making). The next time you are rushing to write an email, remember the costs of omitting context.

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