Often, aside from concerns about manager, salary, or opportunities for growth, the Number 1 concern on an employee survey or exit interview is about communication. The lack of communication and feedback in most offices is a surprisingly large problem. While some organizations are great at it, it seems increasingly that many are not. But why does it matter if the company is still making money and growing, right? While this might be a common sentiment, issues around employee communication lead to a number of problems. For one, a lack of communication alienates good employees, which creates knowledge churn. Not to mention, if you’re not communicating effectively, how do you really know if projects and initiatives are on track? How do you know where the priorities need to be or what resources should be allocated to whom? Communication underpins everything that happens in a workplace and when it stalls, a productivity slump can follow. So the question then becomes, if communication makes workplaces better, what can we do to improve it? And what tactics actually have an impact?
Communication is tricky
While we'd love to tell you there's an easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this issue, there simply isn't one. People interact with each other and information in a variety of ways. Some pieces of employee communication are connected to how the company disperses information, others are more concerned with person-to-person communication and the role personality can play. There are many angles from which to look at this issue but all of them agree with the central premise that a large portion of communication is individual and solutions need to take those differences into account. Coming up with one fabulous communication strategy is a great place to start but your work doesn't end there. Effective communication takes time and energy, and it will likely require some trial-and-error to find an approach that works for you and your team. So let's explore a few strategies that can help the busy manager communicate better.
Strategy #1: Ask three questions
If you think you might have a communication problem in your office, try this strategy out. This is from research out of Stanford, and the idea is that all work communication follows this format:
- So what?
- Now what?
What does that really mean? Well, let’s break this into an example using the three question approach:
What: “You missed a deadline.”
So What: “This is going to make a few other people scramble for this meeting tomorrow.”
Now What: “I’d like you to help these people and also, in the future, attempt not to miss deadlines.”
This is not a perfect conversation, no. But it establishes the problem, what happened as a result of the problem, and what should happen in the future to address the issue. That’s a good start. If you can use this framework consistently, your overall communication will improve and your team will start following and expecting the question pattern. You may even eventually find they come with their answers prepared in advance when there's a problem, which helps employees take more ownership over their projects and mistakes.
Strategy #2: Pause for 45 seconds
That might seem like an eternity, but some recommend pausing for 45 seconds after a new idea is presented or new concept is communicated, then attempting to respond with respect for the person who just proposed something. As Fast Company notes:
Hopefully, your answer is an immediate, indignant “no.” If it is, then make a point to turn to your employees for input on your next decision. After you ask for that input, pause. Do not interrupt; do not speak. Pause up to 45 seconds where possible. You might find this incredibly uncomfortable; it’s amazing how silence can be so hard to tolerate. But if you wait long enough, they will talk and, again, you will learn.
Now 45 seconds is a long time but even if you can't wait that long, getting into the habit of pausing to consider ideas will help slow the team down long enough to ensure great ideas aren't chucked too quickly. Even better, it can also help stop poor ideas from gaining traction without first being properly vetted.
Strategy #3: Deliver important information face-to-face
Admittedly, this isn’t always possible with increasingly-remote teams. But research has indicated that face-to-face communication is up to 34x more effective at conveying the core idea than digital communication is. Think about it in these terms: Would you want to be fired from a job via an email? Probably not. While not every situation is as drastic as firing, you want important information -- and information that can change your relationship to your job, like a team realignment -- to be delivered in-person. As the world rushes to embrace digital strategies for communication, remember that sometimes the human touch is what really matters. Issues concerning performance, job assignment, project or resource allocation, career details such as salary or promotions, and any formal feedback (both good or bad) should happen in person where possible.
Strategy #4: Know the six tools
Per Northwestern research, the six tools necessary for communicating complex ideas effectively are:
Not everyone can incorporate all six into every communication or meeting, but we do live in an increasingly data-driven time, so that one is typically covered. Stories and pictures resonate massively with the human brain, and participation speaks to our need for connection. “Logic” is always a good thing to have when communicating; “equations” might be the one that’s hardest for people, and doesn’t work in every communication-necessary context, but it’s valuable to think about as a way to get points across. When you can, try to include more than one of the six tools to make your message resonate and be more memorable than the average work interaction.
Strategy #5: “What’s in it for you?”
This seems selfish on the surface, and perhaps it is -- but it’s the idea of leading business communication by telling the employee what’s in it for them. All of us have bills to pay, families to go home to, and other needs we’re dealing with. No one wants to take on work just for the sake of doing work. So if you can define “Once this is done, the end incentive is _____” or “You will receive _____ for doing ______,” it can be a more effective way to communicate with and subsequently motivate employees. Now clearly this is not a strategy that should be leveraged every single time for every activity but for larger projects or unforeseen occurences, it can help re-energize your team and get them motivated to tackle the next challenge coming your way.
Strategy #6: Be more organic
Newsletters, Intranets, Town Hall meetings, all-hands meetings... they are all good ideas in their own right. But they can feel forced, i.e. mandatory participation -- or, in the case of the Intranet, it can feel challenging to navigate often. So what you need is organic communication, which usually happens at the manager-employee level. Managers need to keep their employees abreast of what’s happening in the company that they’ve heard about, and attempt to protect them from potentially sweeping changes. Employees need to do their jobs and ask for feedback, then act on that feedback. The cycle should be as organic as possible, like two people having conversations of importance, and not feel forced.
Take the time to improve communication at work
The bottom line is, effective communication is hard and doesn't happen overnight. Your company culture or work environment can have a lot to do with when and how your workers interact with each other. After all, think of all the differences you see in the average office. There are lots of personalities at any given workplace. There are lots of generations. There are lots of different connections back to work. There are different salary bands. People have different responsibilities. It’s not easy to get everyone on the same page and communicating effectively. Most organizations still don’t do it well and we can see that poor communication leads to delayed projects, increased conflict, or even a decline in a company's success. But if you start with some of the ideas and concepts above, you can get closer to open, honest communication that improves the way people and teams work together. Isn't shaking up your communication approach worth that extra effort if it helps your team succeed?
Now pause for 45 seconds and think about it all.