The first step to effective employee communication

Let’s just admit it. Communication could be a lot better in the workplace.

The fantastic comedic duo Abbott and Costello once did a very famous routine called “Who’s on First.” If you are one of the few who haven’t ever seen it, reward yourself and go here (Click here for Abbott and Costello) before reading further. Trust me, you don’t want me to spoil any of the fun.

Communication, comedy style
In this skit, Abbott is a manager of a baseball team, and Costello is a baseball fan and wants to learn the players’ names. Abbott is happy to oblige. But while Costello is hearing, he’s not quite understanding. Of course, since you have all have now seen this routine, you know that the names of the players are quite unique. They all have unique last names, such as, “Who”, “What”, “I don’t know.” So when Abbott tries to communicate, “’Who’ is on first”, he’s telling his friend the name of the person who is playing first base. But Costello hears something different. It goes something like this:

Costello: “Who’s the name of the person on first base?”
Abbott: “Yes it is!”
Costello (with a confused look on his face): “Huh?”
Abbott: “Who is the name of the person on first base!”
Costello: “That’s what I’m asking YOU!”
Abbott: “Right!”
Costello (now frustrated): “OK. Let’s try this again. What’s the name of the person on 1st base?”
Abbott: “No. ‘What’ is on 2nd base. ‘Who’ is on first.”
Costello (yelling): “Why are you asking me? I’m trying to figure this out!”

You can see the confusion (and hilarity) that happens pretty quickly here. Both characters of this skit heard and understood the words that were being used. But some of the words (names in this case) had different meanings to both people. Communication suffered between the two.

Yeah – but that’s only a skit, right?

Unfortunately, the same thing is happening at your business right now. Every day, people are using words that have different meanings to different people. And because individuals have different meanings in their brains, they each will go off and behave differently. They will do their job according their individual definition, and not one that is shared by the team/organization. And communication between the two become frustrating and ineffective.

Let me give you a few examples.


What does this word mean to you? If you were to ask your co-workers for their definitions of productivity, would it match yours? Do you feel that there are some people in your office that are more or less productive than others? Do you have the same definition for productivity as your boss? You should. But you probably don’t. Is your definition different than the finance department’s definition? After all – they are the group that often measures productivity.

What about the words:


We all know what these words mean, but they all might have a different meaning to each of us. If your definition of “customer satisfaction” is different than mine, then we are going to try to please the customer in different ways, aren’t we? When this happens, damaging silos within the workplace are created, teamwork is diminished, and your customer won’t get a consistent, reliable message from your business.

So what can I do to improve our communication?

The good news is that fixing the communication gap like this is as easy as speaking itself.

  1. Work with your staff to define all key terms. Be very clear and specific, and remove any confusion.
  2. Validate the work. Watch them. If people are performing the same task differently, then most likely there is a definition problem.
  3. Repeat step 1, if necessary.

It’s funny when Abbott and Costello do it, but in the workplace, making sure that everyone has the same meanings for key words can be the difference between a base hit and a home run.

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