If you were to line up 100 random employees from 100 random industries around the world, what do you think might be their biggest complaint about where they work? There are a couple of options as answers, but communication in the workplace is probably a top-three answer.
Statistics abound on the lack of communication in the workplace: for example, 57% of employees report not being given clear directions on projects, and 69% of managers are not comfortable communicating with employees in general. A study by the Corporate Finance Institute found that communication skills are twice as important as core managerial skills.
At the same time, though, we’ve been talking about communication in the workplace for years -- decades, even -- and the same problems seem to persist, with the same general numbers about lack of communication appearing in studies.
So how could we make communication in the workplace more impactful and important? There are a few different approaches and ideas and even “hacks,” but it starts with a higher-level understanding of communication in general.
The evidentiary basis that lies beneath F4S has addressed communication within management and leadership approaches, and broadly when we talk about communication in the workplace, we’re talking about:
Above all else, you need to understand what makes your team “tick” -- and, more than just your overall team, you need to know the specific communication preferences of each member.
Some team members may want long one-on-one phone calls; some may prefer notes in Slack. Some may prefer SMS or quick emails. Some may prefer limited communication except on big projects.
A major mistake that managers tend to make around communication in the workplace is trying to communicate “to the many.” Think of employee newsletters or mass emails or Intranet postings or something with @channel tagged in Slack. These can be effective in terms of scale, but it’s not the preferred communication method for every person on the team. You need to communicate “to the one,” meaning personalized. That’s a big takeaway.
There is not one approach to rule them all in terms of effective communication in the workplace, but this, from Stanford University, is a good start. They recommend a three-tiered approach:
In practice, it would look like this:
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 allows managers to frame communication in the workplace around:
It fosters a sense of accountability around better communication, which is a crucial bridge.
This is harder during COVID, although Zoom, Skype, Meet, and other tools are “face-to-face,” if not “in-person.”
In the March 2017 issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, there was a study entitled “Ask in person; you’re less persuasive over email.” The study was then summarized by its authors on Harvard Business Review and they found that in-person requests or project pivots were 34 -- yes, 34 -- times more effective than those communicated over email or messenger platforms.
This brings up an important point about communication in the workplace, summarized in memes like this:
There are different channels and approaches that work best for different types of messages. It will vary by person, but at a high level:
The line between emails and meetings is a complicated one deserving of its own post, but in the context of communication in the workplace, it’s helpful to talk to each of your team members and understand their feelings on both emails (do they overwhelm them?) and meetings (same).
If you have a generally negative team view of one or both, consider using them sparingly if you can, or reserve meetings for very important discussions, so that they have an air of mattering more.
Here’s research from Northwestern on how to communicate more complicated ideas, which they ultimately parse into six tools:
This is more about presentations, which are an important aspect of communication in the workplace. The approach argues you need the right:
There are thousands of pieces of advice about giving better presentations, including “A.I.M.” (audience, intent, and message) or asking more questions of your audience. All can help improve presentations, and ultimately presenters need to find the style and approach that works best for them. But the Northwestern approach above is firmly rooted in the business world ethos of the moment: data-driven, story-guided, and logic-above-all. Aim for that, and work with your team to present in this way.
That idea has been proposed for better communication in the workplace: after the presentation of a new idea by a member of your team, pause for 45 seconds and respond with respect.
We personally endorse this approach, although 45 seconds can admittedly feel like an eternity, especially if your specific culture is rooted in decisiveness as a core value. You should pause for a time that feels comfortable to you to evaluate new concepts before instantly rushing to a judgement, though.
The founders of Basecamp summarize the need to pause and reflect well here:
At most companies, people put together a deck, reserve a conference room and call a meeting to pitch a new idea. If they’re lucky, no one interrupts them while they’re presenting. (But usually someone jumps in and derails the presentation after two minutes.) When it’s over, people react. This is precisely the problem.
The person making the pitch has presumably put a lot of time, thought and energy into gathering their thoughts and presenting them. But the rest of the people in the room are asked to react. Not absorb, not think it over, not consider — just react. Knee-jerk it. That’s no way to treat fragile new ideas.
This dovetails with some of the context about presentations above. When you design communication in the workplace in this way, or design new idea presentations this way, what you’re leaving on the table is introvert contributions. They will not feel comfortable in such an ecosystem.
One of the recommendations to have more inclusive presentations, pitches, meetings, and team huddles is to start with a written document. Famously, companies like Amazon and Basecamp (where the above quote is pulled from) have done this.
It provides more context on the idea or topic at hand, allows time for reflective thought, and doesn’t lend itself to a “reaction”-driven context where people feel the need to say the first thing that pops into their head.
It’s not perfect, no -- people might rush through the memo, etc. -- but it’s a good approach to being more inclusive around communication in the workplace.
That argument has been made, often by pointing to the philosophies of Lao Tzu, who has said:
“The wise leader speaks rarely and briefly. After all, no other natural outpouring goes on and on. It rains and then it stops. It thunders and then it stops…The leader teaches more through being than through doing. The quality of one’s silence conveys more than long speeches.”
There is some validity to this approach. Above, we talked briefly of “quality” vs. “quantity” in terms of communication in the workplace. There is a consistent amount of advice and thought leadership on the need to “over-communicate,” and some employees will need that, yes.
But in general, a focus on over-communication can lead directly to micromanagement, or a company can push out too many external resources (blog posts, press releases, studies, quizzes, etc.) that ultimately very few are consuming.
Sometimes silence is golden, and if you trust your team (which ideally you do), the times for over-communication are around bigger, high-level strategic issues. The rest of the time you should aim for striking a balance, so as not to overwhelm your team with 24/7 communication that will contribute to remote work burnout.
Again, your ‘sweet spot’ of communication will vary by the people on your team.
Concepts and ideas to consider if you feel your team is not communicating well:
This can be tricky, because what we’re discussing here is communication across teams and between employees, and most articles you will encounter about internal communication tend to be about employer branding, i.e. you’re pushing content to employees and want them to share it to their networks. That’s an important aspect of communication in the workplace, yes, but it’s not explicitly what we are covering here.
In terms of measuring how effectively your team communicates, here are the approaches:
This is less data-driven and scientific, but you can try to pay attention to:
There are a lot of things in a given organization that people “know” but can’t necessarily “track,” and this falls in there.
Survey your team members about tools, emails, meetings, memos, communication styles, and more. Do it four times per year. See where the scores land.
There has been research over time from SHRM that, beyond compensation issues or bad management, the top reason people leave roles is a lack of communication and clarity on key projects and across their team.
When people do choose to leave you, ask them why. Have structured exit interviews. If “communication in the workplace” keeps coming up, you have a problem and need to double down on improving it.
Ask team members to, anonymously or otherwise, review the communication styles, email etiquette, meeting decorum and more of their colleagues -- on your team and in other departments. Learn what people think about the communication ecosystem around them. It’s your launch pad for doing better.
It’s such an all-encompassing topic, in reality, that we didn’t even get into discussions around types of interpersonal communication or types of nonverbal communication. (Thankfully, we had covered that in previous articles.)
Above all, be intentional when you communicate, and personalize your approach: communicate (and manage) to the one, not the many. Understand what makes your team tick and communicate clearly in the way they prefer. Some ideas for specific approaches -- pausing, rooting presentations in data and stories, maximizing face-to-face time -- are above, but if you remember nothing else about communication in the workplace, remember the words “intellectual property,” then think “IP,” and then think “intentional and personalized.” You’re well on your way.
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