Imagine for a moment that you have a new friend, and you notice you haven’t heard from them for a while. They haven’t replied to your last couple of texts. Would you wonder if you’ve been ghosted? Of course, on some level, you know they might have just gotten busy, but on some level, you probably also think, “I shouldn’t have told them about my collection of vintage melamine dinnerware… now they just don’t like me anymore.”
That’s a funny thing about our minds. In the absence of information, they fill in the gaps and make up all sorts of plausible things, without the owners of said minds even realizing it is happening.
If your friend didn’t just assume you’d understand but thought to text you and say “phew, I just got a new assignment at work, I’m gonna be pretty scarce for the next few weeks,” not only would your mind be at ease, you might even offer to bring them dinner or take their dog for a walk. (It’s an adorable dog.)
This is a simple example of overcommunication. There is no strict need to keep you in the loop. You don’t have an agreement or contract that makes it mandatory. But saying more than is strictly necessary makes things better for both of you.
This same skill can dramatically improve your work life, not just in the short term but for the entire arc of your career.
At Glowforge, one of our cultural cornerstones is that we “take care of each other.” The type of overcommunication we are about to discuss in detail is one of the ways that we do that. An employee helps take care of their manager by proactively communicating project status and what, if anything, is impeding success. A manager helps take care of their employees by making that communication psychologically safe even when it contains bad news, and by offering constructive support to solve problems.
Isn’t This Just Communication?
Sure. Except that most people don’t do nearly enough proactive, detailed, thoughtful communication at work. So, relative to the baseline, it is overcommunication.
A Note About Privilege and Bias
This article assumes a degree of privilege. It assumes you work at a job where you are respected and valued, both for your work and as an individual. Many people work in jobs where they are treated more or less as a replaceable commodity, and also there are systematic biases around race, gender, class, religion, disability, and many other aspects of diversity that can make this kind of direct communication riskier for some individuals than others. You have to be your own judge of how much and what kind of communication your manager and your company can handle.
Also, Skip This Article If …
I can read your mind right now. Some of you are thinking, “Communicating more sounds great, but I work in a no-excuses industry.” Maybe so, although clear communication isn’t the same thing as excuses.
But if you’ve chosen to work in a company or industry that has no room for anything but perfect execution every time, regardless of changing circumstances, I hope it is worth it!
And this article probably isn’t for you.
When To Overcommunicate (Hint: Pretty Much Always)
If you are a new employee, in a new role, or on a new team, overcommunicate and make it easy for your manager and teammates to have visibility into what you are doing and what decisions you are making. You’ll be rewarded with better feedback earlier, and get on a much faster path to being trusted and highly valued.
Are you implementing a new process? Overcommunicate so that you and all of the stakeholders catch opportunities for improvement before it becomes set in stone.
Do you have a new personal struggle? Do you have a parent that needs more care, a baby that just won’t sleep, or a back that’s suddenly killing you? Don’t feel you need to carry that weight alone, or risk being thought less than. Everyone, and I mean everyone, no matter how bullet-proof they seem, has personal problems that affect their work from time-to-time. Overcommunicate and get the support and understanding that you need.
A bit of advice on this particular one: it isn’t necessary, or necessarily wise, to go into great detail on your personal problems. Depending on your relationship with the receiver and your sense of safety, you may want to say as little as “I’ve got a problem in my personal life that I expect will cause me to operate at reduced capacity for the next month or so.”
Have you ever worked on a project for days, weeks, or months, only to have the result rejected and send you back to square one? Did you show your work in progress along the way? I bet not. If you had, not only would you have gotten feedback sooner and corrected course, but the person giving the feedback would feel much more personally invested in the success of the project. By the time you get to the end, final approval should be a mere formality.
Another benefit of communicating along the way, particularly if you use a structured set of documents, is you and your leader have a place to refer back to, to remember when and why a decision was made, in case you need to revisit it in light of new information. At a startup like Glowforge, new information is something we welcome and expect! It is helpful to remember that your leader probably has to multitask more than you do, so having past context to go with that new information is an empathetic way to help them help you!
Did something awesome just happen? Did you finish a project early, or get better results than anyone anticipated, or delight a customer? Don’t keep the good news to yourself, overcommunicate! (But do use your empathy to make sure you share in a way that will be well received by everyone involved.)
Have you received feedback that you are underperforming or felt that your manager doesn’t understand what you do day-to-day? This can be scary, and effective overcommunication is the key to rapidly improving the situation. Even if you aren’t worried about losing your job, you don’t want to be perceived as underperforming for long. Now is the time to get 100% on the same page and be crystal clear about expectations. Don’t wait for more feedback. Let your manager know on a consistent, possibly daily basis what you’ve done, what you are about to do, and any place that you are blocked. They will appreciate it, see that you want to turn things around, and have the information they need to help you get things back on track fast.
By the way, a common outcome in these situations is that the employee starts reporting in a lot more detail. Then their manager seems happier with their work even though they think they haven’t done anything differently. That’s a bummer. The perception is, “this is so dumb that they have to check up on me.” In reality, just the act of communication likely helps to focus effort on the most valuable work. And it also misses the point that communication is itself a crucial part of the job. If you are a manager and are coaching an employee to communicate more, be sure and share your appreciation and help them to see the value their extra effort is creating!
And then there is the most common situation at all, which is simply being overwhelmed. We’ve all been there. You’ve got so much on your plate that you don’t know where to start. Things that look like they will take fifteen minutes balloon into five-day poop-storms. Every item you cross off your list seems to spawn three more. The check engine light just went on in your car. And now your boss is chasing you down for an unexpected fire drill.
I can hardly breathe reading back through that paragraph. But you don’t have to suffer in silence. Here’s what I do when I find myself in that situation.
- Make a list of everything and take a stab at the right priority to attack it.
Assuming you work someplace reasonably humane, no-one is expecting you
to deliver all of that on time under those circumstances. But they need
to know what is going on!
- Write a calm, clear email to your manager and stakeholders.
Let them know the situation, your plan, and realistic estimates of when
projects will be done. You may even need to suggest entirely cutting
some work, or see if it can be reassigned. Ask for feedback on whether
your proposed course of action is the right one.
- Agree on a plan, then, keep them updated on a regular and frequent basis.
By overcommunicating, you will engage their empathy and invite them to consider whether there is anything they don’t actually need, or need right away. By calling out the problem early and often, you are building trust. If you keep trying to spin all those plates and don’t say anything until they are crashing and shattering and it is too late to do anything about it, you lose trust.
I can’t stress this enough. For many people, the instinct under stress is to hide and try to dig out of the hole by themselves. This rarely works. Usually, the hole gets deeper and the options for solving the problems get narrower as time goes by.
If you develop the habit of communicating problems as soon as you suspect them, instead of waiting until there is no hope, you and your team are going to be much happier.
How To Overcommunicate
So what does excellent overcommunication look like? I don’t know that I can do any better than to share (with permission) an email that one of our Glowforge product managers sent to their stakeholders:
No action needed – but an awareness I’m dropping certain things to focus on getting Q1 kicked off. I’ve organized what I’m working on and thought I’d send a status update for both my sanity and general communication 🙂 … so I can move forward and ship.
- There is too much moving right now, and I’m answering questions about most of these things most days
- To make real progress towards checking them off and shipping, I need to focus on some things while letting others drop for a week or so
- Chart showing all the things I’m working
- Details beneath chart
… [details redacted]
Why is this email so impactful?
- They don’t bury the lede. From the first sentence, you know that they need to decommit from some projects. It is fundamentally honest.
- They focused on the crucial result, which is that they want to “move forward and ship,” which makes it highly relevant to the stakeholders.
- They’re overwhelmed, but have still taken the time to do the work of organizing projects into a coherent chart and clearly stating the status of each, suggesting which ones to drop or delay, and laying out the impact of those changes. They ask for support and set up the stakeholders to be successful at supporting them by concisely providing all of the necessary information. In other words, it is respectful of their time and attention.
You should make an effort to get to know your manager’s preferred style. When you’ve communicated this way, especially the first few times, I recommend following up with them in person – where you can see their reaction – and check whether it was ok and helpful, and how it could be better in the future. Sometimes an overcommunication won’t have the desired effect and that is an opportunity for you and your recipient to practice empathy and make a great repair.Great communication is honest, relevant, respectful, and concise. Click To Tweet
Really, So, Always?
Of course, there are risks to overcommunicating. If you have a manager that makes it psychologically unsafe to have a project go wrong, or that has a tendency to micromanage your every move, this isn’t going to be a helpful tool. But maybe you need a different manager! You deserve a responsive, encouraging receiver of your messages. I could (and should) write another article for managers on how to be a great receiver.
If you find yourself wanting to write something just to make sure it is documented so later you can say “see, I told you so” when something goes wrong, that’s not overcommunicating, that’s CYA (covering your a__). You can easily spot the difference because a CYA doesn’t come packaged with thoughtful solutions.
And of course, overcommunicating can be taken too far. If you are taking 4 hours to write up a detailed status on a 2-day project, that is obviously not the right return on investment! Get in the habit of writing status that is honest, relevant, and respectful, and also concise.
Not Just For Today
It is easy to think about this style of communication as nothing more than a productivity hack, or a way to get out of a short term jam. It certainly is those things, but it is so much more.
Imagine you were to take two identical twins and give them the same starter job, same manager, same skills, and the same personality. One competently does all of their work behind a veil of silence, not sharing good news, opportunities, or challenges, but just plugs away until asked for a status update. The other does the same level of work but communicates effectively, keeping their manager and stakeholders proactively informed. Which one is going to get the next opportunity for growth?
If you compound that over the course of a decade, the first twin will likely be doing about the same thing they were when they started. The second will have earned much more trust, more responsibility, a wider range of experiences, and have a much more fulfilling career.
This isn’t just a tool for individual contributors, it is a skill that you can use in every role. Even our CEO makes a huge effort to overcommunicate with our board of directors and our entire company so that we all have the context to give effective input and make great decisions.
So what do you think? Has overcommunication worked for you or bitten you in unexpected ways? Overcommunicate in the comments and share your experience.