Dan Erwin: Learning

Understanding Relationship Barriers and Breakdowns

Communication breakdowns happen a lot more than most of us think. It may be obvious that with a wide range of organizational associates, relationship breakdowns are inevitable. But candidly, it also happens regularly with one-on-ones. The actual researched percentage of misunderstanding and breakdown in an ordinary work conversation is so high you won’t believe me without extensive explanation. So, I won’t share the percentage. But suppose a tech manager is relating to a colleague in sales. That’s a set-up for breakdown. Inevitably, they’re working on different timelines, based on different objectives. Furthermore, the rewards are typically conflicting, the techie on salary and sales on commission.

But add four or five more people into the mix, all from different organizational disciplines, and you’re not just adding to the potential for relationship breakdowns, you’re both multiplying and speeding up the potential for misunderstanding and breakdown.  Inevitably, conflicts over personnel, resource allocation, timelines and turf, surface.  Differences of objectives, strategies, measures of success and even values can escalate the emotions.  We have a “communication breakdown" is not just Led Zeppelin, it remains a common buzzword for these differences.  In a real sense, however, the above relationships are not, strictly speaking, "communication breakdowns."  The parties involved understand exactly what's going on and they are effective at communicating their differences, and hopefully, negotiating them.  They involve trust and competition, usually over scarce resources of one kind or another. What makes interpersonal breakdowns especially difficult is that resolution often requires behavioral negotiation skills, skills more complex than negotiating products and dollars.


Candidly, the above differences that we label "communication breakdowns" are neither the most common nor the most personally painful.  There are, instead, some very common barriers and breakdowns that get in the way of effective relationships that can be even more damaging than the above list.  The really damaging barriers are about misunderstanding another person's point of view.  Indeed, I've found that that the most common barriers and breakdowns in organizations are inevitably about relational breakdowns.  What makes these interpersonal breakdowns so difficult is that dealing with hard products is a lot different than dealing with the barriers posed by soft people feelings. So, when the breakdown is interpersonal, these breakdowns can require behavioral conversations and at least basic behavioral negotiation skills. Behavioral skill of either type is not always available, so the breakdown remains unresolved or pushed up the ladder.

Attribution theory
The best way to understand these breakdowns is through what is known as "attribution theory" which deals with the ways people interpret observed facts and explain others’ as well as their own behavior. What’s significant about attribution is that the causes we use to explain another’s behavior impacts the way we think about, feel about and behave toward that person. The practice is so widespread that attributions can be made of others’ behaviors without an observable cause. Of course, it takes very little thinking to realize that observed behaviors can be interpreted in numerous ways.  Furthermore, research also shows that once we've created our interpretation, right or wrong, it's very difficult to dislodge.

The process has become so questionable that in response to the potential for erroneous conclusions social scientists speak about the “fundamental attribution error.” The attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others--while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people are almost inherently biased to assume that a person's actions depend on what "kind of person” that manager or worker is rather than on the business context.

Let's say you're the manager of a technology team.  Noticing that one of your employees seems to be working particularly hard over the past few weeks, you wonder why.  You might conclude that his project timelines are causing his behavior.  Or maybe he is angling for a raise.  Could be that he's attempting to suck up.  Maybe he's just bored and wants to keep busy.  So, you decide he's angling for a raise, but a colleague tells you he's just sucking up. Whatever. You've drawn a potentially fallible conclusion based on observable fact. And, in spite of all that's been said, once you've decided he's angling for a raise, you'll reject most any other interpretation. And your relevant behavior will follow.

We also make positive inferences.  You might think your employee genuinely wants to see his team succeed.  Or perhaps, you decide, you've just never realized what a hard worker this guy is. But more often than not, it’s the negative attributions that follow, resulting in the relational breakdown. Bad is always more powerful than good. So, it’s rare for us to ask what’s going right about a situation? Instead, it’s what’s going wrong?

Those dangerous inferences
People draw their conclusions both from the work context as well as past history with a person when they come up with interpretations.  But. . . underlying those interpretations are just a few basic assumptions that drive most of them (I prefer "inferences" even though "interpretation" is the more familiar.  Getting used to the term "inferences" will support some other cool, problem-solving and decision-making skills.)   Anyway, these wrongheaded inferences cause us to flare up, get disgusted, get angry and frustrated, be ashamed or even walk away for another day--or week—or even years.  Some families have had major breakups merely because members interpreted the behavior of another using one of these inferences. Inferences, like conclusions are nothing more than opinions. The language just sounds more intelligent.

Thankfully, attribution theory provides us with a lot of insight into human relationships and communication.  Here are three recurring and dangerous assumptions...

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