If you’ve seen the old science fiction television series “Firefly”, there was a scene where the engineer of the spaceship blabbers out a bunch of techno-jargon and the captain gives her a blank look and then says “I need that in Captain dummy speak”.
One of the tricks I adopted shortly after getting in management is hiding my technology credentials. Not that it is any mystery that I came up through the trenches, but over time I learned to not talk specifics about what I used to do. What would happen is that developers would try to talk to me in their usual language and then I would have to parse that down to plain English for my bosses or non-technical colleagues. I did this to myself since I was so desperate when I first moved to management to show how I used to be just like them. A huge mistake on many levels. The other problem that reared its head over time was that while I started to gain a better appreciation for the strategic view, I soon fell behind on specific technology concepts. If I talked to a software developer today I might be lucky to understand half of what they are talking about. I learned to leverage what I need from a software design and project management perspective but I stay away from anything beyond fundamental computer science concepts.
To help insulate myself from the techno-babble I began to ask my developers to put things in “Manager Dummy Speak”. This worked out well because it forced them to learn how to put what they were saying in plain English, improving their communication with non-technical co-workers. It solves a potential communication issue for me so that I am no longer trying to translate what they said. Also, it is self-effacing and demonstrating to my employees that I am aware I don’t know everything. A common problem I’ve had with many managers is their complete inability to admit they don’t know something.
The problem that many employees have, not just software developers, is they get so deep into jargon they bring it into their regular conversation. Management at certain levels may be aware of some of this jargon but for the most part have their own language they speak. Since it all sounds like English to the untrained ear this is where miscommunication happens.
As an employee, you need to learn how to talk to people above you. I say this even if you are in management yourself. Never assume they know the same language. Keep it simple and in plain English as much as possible. If you must use jargon explain it in a non-condescending way.
As a manager, you need to encourage your employees to use this approach, even if it means admitting you don’t know or don’t understand something they said. The boss I respected the most was the first one who didn’t let me techno-jargon him out of my cubicle. Even if you used to do the same job as your employees, you don’t live it the same way they do. As for clarification, get the employee to give you the plain English translation. Make it clear that you need their perspective and their expertise, it helps them realize they have importance and you can avoid misunderstanding when you pass the information along.
More than anything though, I think a lot of this lack of communication would be cleared up if more managers were willing to adopt some humility when dealing with their employees.