Communication is a topic that tends to come up when surveying employees regarding what needs improvement in their workplace. This is true even in companies that are considered best places to work.
Communication can be tricky, but it’s a crucial ingredient in creating a high-performance culture. As leaders, we need to make sure we get our messages across clearly and concisely. It helps us engage employees and drives execution. People like clear boundaries. Vagueness and uncertainty create stress and make mistakes far more likely to happen. Most people truly want to do good work, and they like leaders who make that easy for them.
The goal of this column is to provide ways to improve communication. However, because communication is so subjective and tied to each individual’s perception, it is always a work in progress. In a matter of minutes, a supervisor may hear from one employee they are receiving too much information while another person may say they need more.
I have learned a great deal in my interaction with companies these past decades regarding the subject of communication. Here are some tips:
1. Yes, we always need to hold up the mirror of self-awareness. However, don’t beat yourself up. Communication is a two-way street. Do your best while understanding that becoming a better communicator is a difficult journey without a finish line. Aim for progress, not perfection.
2. Always be aware that just because you say it, that doesn’t mean the person truly heard it. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself until you know the person heard and understood. Many times, we think we’re being clear when we’re not. What we think we said and what others actually heard can be shockingly different. Most employees won’t mind that you already said it once. Say it again. They will be grateful for the clarity.
3. Get great at active listening. It’s all too easy to spend your time calculating your response and not really listening. Try to stay focused on understanding what the person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally. Summarize what they are saying and confirm that what you think they said is actually what they meant. When people don’t feel heard or listened to, it’s upsetting. It damages relationships.
4. Play offense by gathering employees for an open and honest conversation around the subject of communication. When I was president of Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, FL, at every new employee orientation, I split the staff into small groups and asked them to answer two questions: What are you looking for from your supervisor? and What does a great workplace consist of for you? The topic of communication always came up as an important characteristic in a leader and a workplace. So ask the following questions and encourage people to be specific:
What does good communication consist of? At Baptist, this is when the group began to understand this is not an easy topic.
Think of a time when you felt the communication was good. Share the situation and why you felt the commutation was good. List what you learn. This will be valuable in defining key aspects of good communication.
Share with me a time when communication fell short. This information is also good to know. The ways we fall short can vary. It could be the messaging, the timing, or the method.
What information (data) do you feel it is helpful for you to have? How would you like to receive this information? When or how often would you like to receive it?
You may want to send the questions out ahead of time, so the employees can be prepared. After the discussion, close with the statement/question where you play back what you heard. You can say, “So if you receive this information, in this manner, in the timeframe listed, you feel we will have good communication?” The group will say yes.
5. Deliver the requested information back to the group to show you heard them and want to follow through.
6. Gather the group again after a few months. Show that you have been following the communication process they provided and ask them if they feel the communication is better. Ask if there are other things that need to be tweaked based on the past few months and, if so, adjust the processes accordingly.
7. Ask an additional question: What have we learned? The most common answer will be the employees sharing that they also must own communication such as by reading material that is provided.
While there is no perfect communication, by following the points above, communication will improve, as will the employees’ ownership in staying on top of what is being communicated.
Additionally, what works internally, with some adjustments, may also work externally with your customers in defining what they perceive as excellent communication.
Having worked in organizations that at times have had challenging financial periods, as well as many start-ups and small businesses, my goal is to provide suggestions that are not expensive and don’t require lots of resources. The above tactics require little beyond being coachable and willing and also understanding that things take time to master. However, when one truly commits, progress is made.
Thank you for allowing me to be part of your developmental journey.
Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also the entrepreneur in residence at the University of West Florida.