BL&T No. 106: Exploring Both Sides of Good Communication

Company Culture

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.

Borrowed & Learned

Communication has been a theme on my mind lately as we continue improving how we collaborate as a team. Communication can mean different things to different people. My interest is in how we can make our communication more effective around social contracts, specifically when asking questions and delegating tasks.

While social contracts are critical for any team's collaboration, working as a distributed team underscores their importance.

You can't swing by a co-worker's desk to get what you need.

You can't shout across the room to ask a co-worker to review your email.

I know I'm guilty of both!

While these may seem like a luxury now, this behavior made it easy to operate inefficiently and could create a distracting environment for focused work. However, for better or worse, the benefit was the accessibility to co-workers, whether they replied to you on time or upheld their social contracts, or not.

That said, I believe having these constraints as a distributed team can push us to be more effective and accomplish more together. But, like most things, growth takes time and, in this case, a joint team effort.

A social contract involves two or more team members: someone asking a question or making a request and someone on the other side. Communication breaks down when these parties do not share the same standards.

I'm exploring this topic today to examine both sides of a communication breakdown and what we can do to improve.

Complaints & Excuses

When a team member cites issues with a co-worker's communication, there are three common complaints:

  1. No response — "They never responded to my message."
  2. Delayed response — "It took them all day to get back to me."
  3. Lateness — "They missed our internal deadline, even though I told them when it was due."

Typically, the co-worker's manager or I will have a follow-up conversation with them. I find it helpful to enter these conversations with the mindset that we all want to do our best work together, a.k.a. no one is slacking off. I have learned a lot by leading with this mindset, inspiring me to gain perspective vs. coming in as a feedback messenger and never getting the full context.

Sometimes, the team member is aware of their co-worker's complaint and frustration. They don't feel good about how they've impacted the team. Other times, they have no idea. Either way, they almost always have an excuse for why they think it's happening.

Some common excuses:

  1. Low priority — "It didn't seem like a priority to get back right away."
  2. Confusion — "It wasn't clear what they were looking for from me."
  3. Different timeline — "I never said I could hit that timeline."
  4. Notification overload — "I get so many notifications, I didn't see their message."
  5. Meetings — "I was in back-to-back meetings all day. I didn't see their message right away."
  6. Worktime — "I was heads-down in work. I didn't see their message right away."

All of these excuses are solvable and within their control. We usually spend most of our conversation unpacking the excuse and ways to avoid it in the future.

Here are some common themes:

  • Acknowledge any message directed toward you as soon as you see it. Even if you cannot respond immediately, let the person know you saw it and when you can. Acknowledgment can be as easy as using the emoji reactions in Slack!
  • Update Slack settings to work for you. I only receive notifications when my name is tagged or when a few select keywords get mentioned.
  • Leave the Slack channels you don't need to be in anymore, cutting down on notifications immediately.
  • Keep an eye on Slack. Don't let it get out of hand. Check it regularly throughout the day. It takes less than two minutes to run through and see what's happening on important channels.
  • Own your calendar. Review the week on Mondays, tomorrow tonight, and today this morning. If you don't know why you're added to a meeting, find out. If you don't know what the meeting is for, find out. If you have a conflict, resolve it. If you are concerned about hitting a deadline, let your manager know.
  • If you don't know what someone is asking of you, ask them. Don't assume anything.
  • If you cannot commit to what someone is asking from you, let them know. There's always another way.

An Overlooked Opportunity

In the past, I've left these conversations feeling relieved, as if the team member with excuses was a problem I solved. I listened, gave feedback, aligned on ways to improve, and documented everything for future reference. Check, check, check! Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Most of the time, the conversation continues — some become serious performance issues, others fade away as the team member improves.

Either way, I've learned there's an important step I've previously overlooked — taking time to dig into the situation with the team member sharing the feedback from the start.

If you noticed, excuse #1, #2, and #3 above point to a lack of clarity from the person with the request:

  1. Low priority — "It didn't seem like a priority to get back right away."
  2. Confusion — "It wasn't clear what they were looking for from me."
  3. Different timeline — "I never said I could hit that timeline."

Making time to chat with this person about how they communicate and align on ways to be more effective is invaluable. The balance is not making the person feel I am dismissing their concern.

If their co-workers's poor communication continues, and worse yet, other co-workers share similar feedback, they are likely not a good fit. However, raising the bar on our communication can only help. The best case is that #1, #2, and #3 are no longer excuses!

So, what can we do to improve how we create social contracts?

Statement, Request, Command

I recently finished reading The Primes: How Any Group Can Solve Any Problem, author Chris McGoff. In the book, McGoff touches on the recklessness by which many of us enter social contracts.

The framework distinguishes between three different concepts:

  • Statements
  • Requests
  • Commands

Statements are "a description of something or the condition of someone." They elicit no response. In an agency setting, a statement might sound like:

  • "We should address the client's feedback quickly."
  • "I'm hoping you can help me out with this."
  • "We can't exceed the client's hours this month."

I can't count how many times I've heard statements disguised as requests. I'm guilty of the same mistake. We get frustrated when we don't receive the desired response or receive no response at all. While we might hope that our co-worker would pick up on the urgency or tone, we cannot guarantee they will.

Requests are explicit. In McGoff's words, they are an "invitation to give your word. ... Only two responses to a request are allowed in high-performance groups: “no” and “yes.” “Maybe” or “I'll try” are code words for “no,” and their use should be forbidden."

Here are some examples reframing the above statements as requests.

  • "Can you address the client's feedback by 10am tomorrow?"
  • "Can you help me with this at 2:30pm? I can schedule some time for us."
  • "Can you send me a breakdown of how we plan to use the rest of the client's hours by the end of day?"

While requests are more effective than statements, I find it is important to include as many details as possible. Details might include when I'm looking for a response from the person or if their response is a blocker.

  • "Can you address the client's feedback by 10am tomorrow? Please let me know by 2pm today. I need to get back to the client by 2:30pm to let them know if we can keep with our current schedule."

There is no obligation to say yes to requests; however, "no" should lead to aligning on new terms for fulfilling the request. The key is that people are comfortable saying no! This is especially important for junior team members who feel pressure to say yes.

Commands require "yes" as a response. At first, I questioned their relevancy at Barrel, but after spending more time with the concept, I can see they have their place on occasion.

Commands are a "requirement for someone to make good on [their] word." I find them most applicable to Client Services team members, project leads, managers, and others in a position of delegating tasks, particularly in tense situations.

Imagine that the above requests are non-negotiable because they are critical to the success of a project or trust within a client relationship. Those requests may sound like this when framed as commands:

  • "Please address the feedback by 10am tomorrow."
  • "Let's meet at 2:30pm so I can get your help with this."
  • "Send me a breakdown of how we're allocating the client's remaining hours by end of day. We cannot go over this month."

If a situation warrants a command, McGoff points out leaving room for the person on the receiving end to let you know the impact of them saying yes. In an agency setting where project leads may not be aware of their project team's workload, making this space is critical and may lead to revising the command altogether.

Some example responses:

  • "No problem, I can get the feedback addressed by tomorrow. I will talk to [Account Lead] about pushing out the deadline for my presentation on Friday."
  • "Yes, 2:30pm sounds good. I'll cancel my one-on-one with Claire."
  • "I will send you the hours breakdown by end of day, but will need to miss our team meeting to get it done in time."


Although I would bet that most of our team would agree with what good communication looks like, I see an opportunity to solidify and reinforce our standards.

Looking ahead, I'm excited to explore how this might take shape. I'd love to see us move toward a future where statements, requests, and commands are part of our agency vocabulary. Everyone understands their role in good communication, recognizing the weight of their words (or lack thereof), holding each other accountable, and maintaining integrity.

Thought Starter

Where am I making statements when I should be making requests?

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