We’ve all played it as a child: telephone, the game in which a group of friends whispers a simple sentence around the circle, one to another, and laugh at how ridiculous the sentence gets by the time it’s gone through several rounds of misunderstanding. While this game may be fun for a bunch of kids, it shouldn’t be the way a company does business. Yet, all too frequently, that’s exactly what happens.


The Irony of the Game of Telephone

While as a child you may have thought of the game of telephone (also known as broken telephone and Chinese whispers) as nothing more than a game, it’s actually an effective tool to teach children how important it is to go straight to the source—not the grapevine—if they want accurate information. It’s a lesson in distortion that’s supposed to keep kids from growing up into the kind of person a boss would fire for inefficiency, and yet communication at the office can often turn into a veritable game of telephone, and it’s as prolific as it is harmful to an organization’s efficiency.


Communication Breakdown

To demonstrate how the telephone game works in a work environment, let’s look at an example. An employee, let’s call him Adam, tells his co-worker that he’s excited about their upcoming vacation, but is worried because it’ll leave him with no PTO (personal time off) to use in the event of a personal emergency. As Adam’s concern is repeated, it might look like this:

  • Employee 2 to Employee 3: “Adam’s excited about his vacation but doesn’t know if he’ll have enough PTO for both his vacation and a possible personal emergency.”
  • Employee 3 to Employee 4: “Adam has a vacation coming up but is using up all his PTO, which means he better not have a family emergency or he’ll be out of luck.”
  • Employee 4 to Employee 5: “Adam’s using his PTO on a family vacation but told HR it’s for a family emergency.”

It’s easy to see that just slightly twisting words a few times can lead to a major breakdown in communication.


Two Main Takeaways

There are two things a team leader can learn from considering the telephone game: first, the best place to get information is from the source itself, and second, communication is absolutely essential to functioning team dynamics. It’s not enough for HR to make an effort to speak clearly, directly, and effectively. Every person who works within an organization needs to be trained how to do so, and management must invest in tools that make communication easier and more effectual.


Heuristics and Human Error

A heuristic is a process by which people make decisions. In short, heuristics act as mental shortcuts that allow people to quickly arrive at a decision or action. A common example is trial-by-error, and stereotyping also qualifies as a human heuristic. We can quickly identify the problem with heuristics, then: any time a human is involved in the decision-making process, there is the potential for bias and errors. When communication passes through multiple people, the likelihood of misinterpretation and misrepresentation grows. Just like in the game, communicating in this way can change the message in three ways: content level, relationship level, and tone.


Four Important Factors to Consider when Thinking about Communication

Any HR manager would agree that communication is important, but we often don’t truly consider why. These four facts about communication should be an important part of any effort to improve communication:

  1. By and large, communication is better in smaller organizations than it is in larger ones. This supports the idea that larger companies have a more difficult and costly time trying to establish complex lines of communication.
  2. Communication tends to better within senior ranks within an organization than it is in lower ranks. This supports the idea that communication tends to break down somewhere within middle management.
  3. When communication is considered good by employees, upper management is more respected than it is within companies where communication is not considered to be good.
  4. When communication is good, employees are more proud of where they work.

A Solution to Communication Issues

Each organization must come up with the best solutions to their communication problems. One digital option that works for many companies is a document management system, or DMS. A DMS prevents many of the miscommunication issues that come with manual solutions and provides accurate, non-redundant, reliable document management solutions. One such solutions is a workflow: workflows automate the process of communication by making it an algorithm; as such, they operate in opposition to heuristics by removing the opportunity for human error to disrupt communication.

Today’s digital workflow solutions even provide mobile access, which means that users can access their documents from anywhere they have an internet connection. From managing personnel files, to keeping client records on file, eFileCabinet is a document management solution that is secure, affordable, and customizable to the specific needs of companies across industries.