Almost half of employees don’t regularly speak their minds at work.
Your team is bickering, projects are getting mismanaged and you can’t get anyone to tell you what they really think—you have a communication problem on your hands.
But figuring out how to improve communication at work isn’t as easy as telling everyone to talk to each other more. It takes real reflection and strategy to nip the problem in the bud.
While it’s laudable that you’re researching how to improve communication at work, your endeavor will be aimless if you’re not clear on what you’re trying to improve. Are you able to, right now, describe in detail where your organization is falling short in communication? If not, try the following:
Only after doing all of the above will you be able to truly improve communication at work.
This tip involves a mindset shift. At work, we make a lot of assumptions, which makes sense—we’re busy, after all, and don’t have time to investigate everything thoroughly. So when a potential client doesn’t call back, we may assume they’re not interested. Or when a coworker is late to a meeting, we may assume they don’t really care. But it is precisely those kinds of assumptions that can lead to misunderstandings.
In her book Dare to Lead, research professor Brené Brown writes about how we tend to react when we experience something we don’t understand: “Rather than rumbling with vulnerability and staying in uncertainty, we start to fill in the blanks with our fears and worst-case-scenario planning.”
Brown’s tip is to use the “story I’m making up” trick. Instead of making an assumption and running with it, approach the person with whom you have a misunderstanding. Explain to them the incident you witnessed, say, “The story I’m making up is…” and then explain how you interpreted the incident.
By doing this, you give them the opportunity to explain the true meaning behind their words or actions. In many cases, you will find that the story you were making up wasn’t accurate at all. The client who didn’t call you back? Maybe she got overwhelmed with proposals and was waiting to hear from you. The coworker who was late to the meeting? Maybe he had a family emergency this morning and didn’t feel comfortable saying so in front of everyone.
And as Brown loves to say, “Get curious.” Instead of immediately taking offense, assuming the worst or blaming others—try to figure out what’s behind people’s motivations and emotions. This creates a judgment-free space for you to explore what’s really going on.
Think updates are a waste of time? Think again. Your team wants to know how they’re doing and how the company is doing as a whole. According to a 2019 Joblist survey, one-third of full-time employees want more feedback from their supervisors.
Here are some ways you can work in regular updates:
Let’s face it; we all try to avoid meetings as much as possible. If it can be an email or a quick Slack message, why not make it one? But when there’s miscommunication, it’s worth the extra time and effort to get on the phone, chat via video or meet in person.
When all you have are words on a screen, it’s easy to misunderstand the meaning behind them. It’s much harder to get angry at someone or take something the wrong way when you can hear the other person’s tone of voice and observe their facial expressions.
Further, some people are naturally inclined toward non-verbal communication. In F4S, we call this affective communication. With people motivated toward affective communication, limiting messages to texting platforms and emails puts them at a disadvantage because they are highly attuned to tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures.
So if you’re having a misunderstanding while communicating online with a colleague, consider that their motivation may lean toward affective communication. Offer to get on the phone with them or meet them in person to clear the air.
Speaking of communication styles, if you’re unsure what yours or your teammates’ are, we make it easy to find out. Take our F4S assessment, which is based on 20 years of work motivation research.
Ultimately, you and your team can have the best communication skills and know each others’ communication styles—but if your workplace culture discourages speaking openly, then it will all go to waste. Therefore, ensure that you create an environment where open communication is modeled and encouraged.
Almost half of employees don’t regularly speak their minds at work, according to The State of Miscommunication report by Quantum Workplace and Fierce Conversations. This is problematic if you want a highly-engaged workforce, as the same report found that employee engagement is positively linked to speaking one’s mind.
A key ingredient to creating this kind of environment is psychological safety, which we talk about a lot here on the F4S blog for a good reason: According to Google’s Project Aristotle, teams that are high in psychological safety bring in more revenue and have members who are less likely to leave.
In a psychologically safe workplace, leaders let their teams know that their concerns and feedback are always welcome. It’s a place where employees feel free to speak their minds without fear of rebuke or retaliation.
As a leader, you set the example for others to follow. For instance, by being transparent about real problems or uncertainty your organization is facing, your team may feel more comfortable voicing their own concerns.
Maybe after reading these tips on how to improve communication at work, you’ve discovered that your team has a lot of work to do. Take heart, though, because effective communication is a skill, meaning it can be learned! Don’t expect an entire company culture to change overnight. It will require sustained efforts. Start today with just one of the tips mentioned, and you’ll reap the benefits over time.
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