It isn’t the message that’s the problem, it’s how the message is made

Have you ever worked for an organisation in which “communication” was not a near-constant problem? Neither have I. Nor has anyone I have ever asked, either.

Yet. Whenever scrum teams are prompted to consider their key strengths, they predictably point towards the team’s ability to communicate. So why is it that within scrum teams shared understanding of complex work is the norm, but outside it, there’s a mix of spaghetti and static. What gives?

I’ve got a theory. Well, David Graeber has a theory in his The Utopia of Rules that I’m “borrowing” (read, bastardising). It goes like this:

human relations ultimately founded on violence create lopsided structures of the imagination, where the responsibility to do the interpretive labor required to allow the powerful to operate oblivious to much of what is going on around them, falls on the powerless, who thus tend to empathize with the powerful far more than the powerful do with them.

What have anthropological theories about structural violence got to do with communication? Well my hypothesis is that fatigue from interpretive labour is commonly being misdiagnosed as a communication problem.

What is ‘interpretive labour’?

Graeber cites a few great examples of interpretive labour.

He talks about American sitcoms from the 1950s, where “jokes about the impossibility of understanding women” was a common trope. It’s rather obvious how popular culture reflected the fact men didn’t need to understand women due to man’s dominant place in society; but if women wanted to navigate a man’s world, then they had to do heaps of interpretive labour.

Back in high school I remember a creative writing exercise where students had to imagine what daily life was like for the opposite sex. Well, Graeber recalls that girls typically find it easy to detail the minutiae of life as a boy. However, boys are often incapable of considering life as a girl beyond mere superficialities— many outright refuse to even do the exercise. If Reddit’s /r/menwritingwomen is to be believed, this phenomena isn’t restricted to teenagers.

What is true of gender relations can also be applied elsewhere. Interpretive labour is present wherever unequal social structures exist, underpinned by the threat of force or coercion.

Umm, how does this explain why scrum teams are good at communicating?

Well, if you think about it, members of a scrum team are relatively equal. Nobody has the power to hire-and-fire, reprimand, or determine pay; “violence” or force isn’t formally possible. As a result, decisions are made largely by consensus; if you want to make changes, there are norms around deliberation, openness, compromise, and agreement. You don’t get far by telling; you have to do a lot of convincing. In Graeber’s language, the cost of interpretive labour is shared and low in agile teams because everyone has a responsibility to understand each other and an expectation to be understood in return. The result is that communication is integral to the decision-making process; if you want to get anything done, you’ll need to understand others.

Now consider the hierarchy surrounding your organisation’s “communication problem”? Chances are, it’s a person in-the-know trying to inform those out-of-the-know about a decision that has already been made (nominal appeals for feedback being a mere ritual). The problem is conceived as one of message and medium; a matter for the speaker, not of understanding, but of being understood. In this system, it’s clear that the interpretive labour for the speaker is negligible, but that of the audience is really high. Unlike in scrum teams, communication is not integral to the decision-making process but an activity to be fulfilled after-the-fact.

In practice, this will immediately ring true to people. Most employees will instinctively sink significant time into thinking about the intentions of their managers. They’ll decipher, consider, analyse, reflect and watch. In short, they’ll try to understand. They have to, I mean, nobody wants to get sacked or get pushed aside. Yet, I’d also venture to guess that this effort doesn’t feel reciprocated. It flows one way from those without authority, to those with it.

Most human relations — particularly ongoing ones, whether between longstanding friends or longstanding enemies — are extremely complicated, dense with experience and meaning. Maintaining them requires a constant and often subtle work of interpretation, of endlessly imagining others’ points of view. Threatening others with physical harm allows the possibility of cutting through all this. It makes possible relations of a far more schematic kind (i.e., “cross this line and I will shoot you”).

It is my theory that the chasm between these two experiences accounts for the common workplace complaint that communication is poor. The problem isn’t that people aren’t “getting the message”, but rather that people are excluded from determining the message itself. To add to their woes, the excluded are then expected to do the heavy-lifting of interpretive labour. It induces stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Ironically, if this is true, then the common solution proposed to communicate more frequently, across more formats, might actually worsen the problem. It will only serve to remind the excluded of their place in the decision-making process. That is, relegated to taking their orders from muffled voices behind closed doors. Such practices may actually reinforce unequal social relationships, widen the gap, and skew the burden of interpretive labour further to one party.

Is it hardly surprising staff get fatigued, becoming passive decision-takers?


What are the tell-tale signs that interpretive labour is wearing down morale?

  • Egos. There’s little conception beyond the self and individual interests. In language, this reveals itself in the absence of “us” or “our”, in favour of “my team”, “my goal”, “my decisions”.
  • Groupthink. Managers all start sounding the same, reflecting the ideas of a select few individuals. This is evoked by an exclusive (and often highly ambiguous) language which, when spoken, is suggestive of submissive unoriginal thinking.
  • Implicit Consensus. Requests for feedback become an empty ritual, where consensus and approval are implicitly assumed from the muted response of attendees. When you ask, “any thoughts?” and nobody replies, it’s not because everyone agrees with you.
  • Busyness. Decision-makers are out of reach, in a lot of meetings, don’t reply, and use the depth of hierarchy to maintain distance. This is associated with a lack of spontaneous and genuine interest in understanding their colleagues.
  • Schematization. A high value is placed on the formality and consistency of a templated process, adherence to which is seen as a good in its own right, and used as a way to route divergent thinking back into acceptable, pre-determined bounds.
  • Silent protests. Your average employee simply stops caring or taking a genuine interest in the end result of decisions being made; acceptance and passivity prevail.
  • Deferred Decisions. Lack of delegation. Authority is exclusively held by a selective group, such that simple decisions require constant “escalation” (a word heavy with symbolism) and meetings result in few tangible outcomes.
  • General inexplicable absurdity.

Solutions? No idea, really…

I don’t have a prescriptive set of solutions to resolve this issue, but it feels like any resolution to this problem will promote participation, inclusivity, divergent thinking, diffused decision-making, flat management structure, and devolved authority. It’d also require the challenging task of defining and upholding a thoughtful, purposeful organisational culture that redefines leadership as the quality of empowering others.

The best way to ensure key decisions are communicated throughout the business — might simply be to involve more people in the process of making them.

Muddled thoughts put into words.