Good staff communication is essential to business success. At the most basic level, employees who don't know what's expected of them seldom perform to their potential. "You can tie back almost every employee issue -- attendance, morale, performance, and productivity -- to communication," says Fred Holloway, an HR adviser in Medford, Oregon. According to a study by the consultants Watson Wyatt (now Towers Watson), companies that communicate effectively are far more likely than companies that don't to report high levels of "employee engagement" and lower levels of turnover. The bottom line for these effective communicators, according to the study: a market premium of nearly 20 percent.
And yet, human nature being what it is, workplace communication is rarely adequate -- and could almost always be better. The good news is that you don't have to be an extrovert, or even particularly nurturing, to foster healthy communication at your company. You simply need the will to improve it. Mostly, you need to be honest, show respect to employees, and work on building trust, without which employees tend to put up a filter and what you say doesn't matter.
The guide that follows introduces habits and practices that engender good comunication, and offers tips on conveying your message effectively.
1. Create the Culture
Above all else, to the extent possible, strive to be transparent and straightforward about the challenges of your business and even about your company's financials. Such candor fosters trust and understanding. "Your employees know you make more money than they do," says Bloomington, Illinois, HR consultant Rick Galbreath. "What they don't understand is that you take more risk. They won't be able to understand the risk until they understand the business."
Schedule informal communication. The simplest way to put yourself (and your managers) in the mindset to communicate, says Galbreath, is to put it on your calendar. In addition to the scheduled activities below, he recommends spending 15 minutes each day, more if you can spare it, on "nontransactional conversation" with underlings. By nontransactional, Galbreath means exchanges that don't have a specific purpose, like a request to do something.
Meet one on one. Informal confabs with the people who report to you, held at least biweekly, serve as excellent occasions to check on their progress as well as identify problems before they blister, and so can be a powerful motivational tool. Galbreath also recommends occasional (once or twice a year) skip-level meetings with individual employees two or more levels down. Besides making sure the boss is not isolated at the top, skip-level meetings are a morale booster. "People are very complimented that a boss two levels up wants to talk with them," says Galbreath. "They're often turned into retention interviews."
Meet in groups. A brief team huddle at the start of the day or the shift is a good way to discuss the goals, challenges, or operating plan for the day. A huddle should be just that, conducted standing in an open space; it should not last more than 10 or 15 minutes. (Pass-down memos, stored in a network folder, can be used to report the events of one shift to the next.) Then, every quarter, a large-group or companywide meeting can serve as a sort of state-of-the-business update, says Galbreath.
The meeting should last about an hour and include a question-and-answer session. If the company culture discourages searching questions, they can be submitted anonymously in advance, says Galbreath. Finally, occasional "lunch and learn" gatherings are good for a less formal discussion of the company, for introducing new products and strategies, or for most any other ancillary subject you want to broach. (They are not places to discuss essential topics or conduct core training.)
2. Make Sure Your Message is Heard
The ways in which you communicate can often be just as important as the substance of that communication. We address the right medium in the section "In Person or in Writing?"; here are a few other strategies for getting your point across.
Evaluate your own abilities. By merely being aware, you can play to your strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Sometimes a single trait can encompass both strengths and weaknesses, says Elaine Tweedy, director of the University of Scranton Small Business Development Center. A dominant, confident individual, for example, can probably run a good meeting and offer his own opinions while keeping people focused. On the other hand, someone who is too dominant might discourage creative input from others. Personality assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC evaluation, can help managers get a handle on their own strengths and weaknesses. These evaluations are often best done in groups so the contrast between types is vivid and the team develops strategies to work more effectively.
Sharpen your message. According to research cited by the Society for Human Resource Management, people normally remember only three to five points from any communication. So keep it short and sharp. This is especially true if your message is being delivered by e-mail or memo. Your conclusions or main points belong at the top as bullet points. An elaborate setup is counterproductive, says Galbreath; readers discern condescension when a big setup attempts to spin bad news, and when one introduces good news, they stop reading before they get to it. Keep the paragraphs short and the whole document to no more than a page. "If someone taped a $20 bill to the second page of every memo in America," says Galbreath, "nobody would ever find one."
If forced to go long during a meeting, Galbreath tries to keep his audience engaged with a compelling moment every few minutes. "I'm going to give them a giggle, or an 'aha,' or something that is going to engage them at a deeper level than just listening," he says.
Recognize good work. If your message is always negative, it won't be heard. Balance criticism with compliments. Do this two ways: Thank employees personally for their efforts, and hold up their behavior as an example to the organization.
Prepare for meetings. Whether your meeting is one on one or in a group, plan what you are going to say and how you will say it. It's important to tailor the delivery to its audience, says Tweedy. "If I brought in an employee who likes direction and formality, and if I presented none of that, they would take my communication as less valid, because it's not what they're accustomed to."
Understand unspoken signals. Body language, for example, can undermine a spoken message. Slouch while disciplining a staff member, for instance, and your demeanor might be read as uncertainty -- or as a lack of interest in the problem you are trying to fix. Even where you hold the meeting can be suggestive: Calling an underling into your office, for example, emphasizes your hierarchical advantage and could affect the dynamics of your conversation; visiting an employee in his office, on the other hand, emphasizes collegiality and could result in more open discussion.
Follow up. When a message needs reinforcement, follow up afterward with a memo or note that recapitulates the conversation.
Listening to Your Employees
Successful communication is a two-way street. If management is doing all the talking, employees tend to tune out. What's more, the people doing the real work of the company often have the best suggestions for improving it and are often the first to see danger approaching.
Create formal feedback mechanisms. Establish a mechanism for input, such as a suggestion box or a hotline. Ensure anonymity if necessary.
Take input seriously. Otherwise, employees will see through the window dressing, which can actually make things worse. "Just because someone gives you a suggestion doesn't mean you have to implement it," says Patricia Veesart, a regional director of the Kansas Small Business Development Center. "But if you don't, you ought to offer some kind of explanation."
Check management attitude. Employees will keep quiet if they perceive that the company culture and management discourage, if even subtly, risk taking, or show downright hostility to questions. According to one recent study, if employees don't think company managers and their policies are fair, all the staff feedback in the world won't create a good employer-employee relationship.
Reward feedback. According to researchers from the Harvard Business Review, employees have difficulty weighing the immediate risks of speaking up against the uncertainty of being recognized and rewarded for the contribution. Managers, they suggest, might "tailor their reward systems so that employees share more directly in the cost savings or revenue streams they help create by volunteering ideas."
In Person or in Writing?
Choosing the medium for a message depends on your office culture. E-mail is increasingly acceptable, even for conveying important information. But there are exceptions. As a general rule, anything that requires development of an interpersonal relationship with an employee requires face-to-face communication. That includes first-time instruction, coaching, counseling, significant delegation, conflict resolution, and, especially, delivering bad news.
Urgent matters, too, are best handled in person. Written messages are often read with divided attention or even ignored for a while; to ensure full and immediate focus on a matter, deliver the message orally.
Finally, recognize that words on a page or screen lack the context, tone, and nonverbal cues that help people understand your meaning in person. When in doubt, talk face to face.
The Society for Human Resource Management (shrm.org) has a wealth of research papers and articles about communication available to members only ($160 per year).