According to management expert and dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, communication is the real work of leadership. And that doesn’t apply only to Fortune 500 companies. No matter the size of the organization, effective managers must be strong communicators to inspire and lead their teams. Unfortunately, with day-to-day business demands, communication skills are getting short shrift at too many companies. Today we’re going to give you a communication tune-up—a set of strategies and suggestions that will help keep your communications efforts on point.
1. Understand that whether you realize it or not, you’re always communicating. Your office environment, corporate culture, and treatment of customers and employees all say a lot about your company. Each of these contributes to your overall reputation in the marketplace or, if you prefer, your brand. As Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” So pay some attention to those branding elements, and make sure that the communications you telegraph are in line with your desired goals and reputation.
2. Encourage regular and ongoing feedback from managers and supervisors to employees. This should include both positive and negative, or constructive, feedback. Remember, no employee likes to be ambushed at review time with the news that he or she has underperformed or failed to meet a goal. The time to communicate this information is while the employee can actually do something to change the situation. Equally important, provide the resources necessary for your employees to make the changes and improvements you request.
3. Pay attention to the language you use. In today’s modern workplace, we recognize that certain terms or phrases might be considered offensive or derogatory, and we don’t use them. Similarly, we must be sensitive to how our language is perceived and make adjustments. Psychologists and corporate trainers have long touted the use of “I” statements to communicate without triggering a defensive response. For example, a boss telling an employee, “You didn’t do this project correctly,” lands very differently than, “I was hoping to see this project handled in a different way.” Both statements communicate that the project in question did not meet the boss’ expectations, but in very different fashions. The “I” statement is likely to lead to further positive engagement with the employee. Similarly, consider using the tried and true “sandwich method” of constructive criticism, where you bookend the area to be improved between two positives. For example, “I really like how you ran that seminar. I’d like to see more detail when discussing the financials, but I’m sure you can easily make that change for the next session.” This is so much more effective than saying, for example, “You left out the financials! Fix it!”
4. Listen. Your ability to listen to employees’ cares, concerns, and issues—and let them know that you’re paying attention and responding—is absolutely essential. In one-on-one or small group settings, remember to practice active listening. Make understanding the speaker your primary goal; do not be judgmental; give the speaker your undivided attention; and don’t interrupt. Rather, signal your agreement or input through body language, eye contact, nodding, or even words like “uh huh.”
Along that vein, make sure you provide ample opportunity for your employees to share their concerns and issues to a receptive audience. Just as a supervisor should deliver constructive criticism all year long, so should employees be given a venue to deliver their own input. This could take the form of open-door policies for access to a boss or manager; town-hall style meetings where the company or specific departments meet with higher-ups in groups and ask questions; formal surveys that solicit employee opinions; or even the tried and true suggestion box, which can be anonymous. Of course, make sure you communicate back to employees any answers, solutions, or policy changes that come about as a result of their feedback.
5. Be clear, correct, and consistent in all your communications. Provide simple directions and easy-to-understand explanations in all forms of communications, both external and internal. Use good grammar and check for errors in spelling and usage by asking a colleague to proofread it. Also, if you have an employee handbook, update it regularly to ensure that its contents are current and in compliance with applicable law. You should also take care to make sure that your communications are consistent across platforms—for example, a policy or procedure in the employee handbook should be echoed on the company intranet, in memos, in emails, and in all verbal communications.
Indeed, effective employee communication has many dimensions, and it must be an ongoing goal and effort at your organization. But keeping the basics in mind, and practicing them in your daily interactions, will serve you well. As we said earlier, you are always communicating—but how well and effectively you do it are up to you. To learn more about HR and benefits management, including how to manage the performance review process, visit us online at HR360.com.