Communication is something we do reflexively -- like breathing. We talk to our spouses, kids and friends without giving much thought to how we're doing it.
It might seem easy, but communicating effectively actually takes quite a bit of finesse. Choosing the right words, listening with our minds instead of just our ears, and getting our message across are skills that we all need to work on.
At home and in social settings, miscommunication can lead to arguments. In the workplace, the repercussions can be far more serious. Poor productivity, unmotivated employees -- even lawsuits -- can result from communication breakdowns at the office.
To improve communication within your team and throughout your entire company, you need to implement a few easy but important changes to your corporate philosophy and practice.
In this article, you'll learn some of the tips management experts use to improve communication. You'll also see how changing your communication strategy can lead to real improvements in employee motivation, productivity and profitability.
Handle Conflicts with Diplomacy
Put a group of different personalities in the same room for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, add the stress of multiple deadlines, and you've got a recipe for conflict. No matter how well intentioned and intellectually compatible the group of people you've hired may be, inevitably you're going to have squabbles over who jammed up the copier or accidentally deleted a co-worker's file.
Most minor issues will blow over on their own, but a few can turn into major disputes. Some office arguments can be serious enough to prompt legal action.
To prevent small conflicts from exploding into major crises, nip issues in the bud right away. Let employees know from the start that your door is always open. Encourage them to come to you by creating a safe environment in which they feel comfortable honestly and openly voicing their frustrations. All conversations held in your office should remain completely confidential.
When you respond to conflicts, do so with an open mind and a nonjudgmental approach. That means absolutely no personal attacks. By asking questions and really listening to the responses so you understand how each person in the dispute feels, you can help the two parties reach a resolution that's acceptable to everyone. Finally, if company policies are to blame for the issues, go to management and suggest some permanent policy changes.
Revive the Great Lost Art of Conversation
Since the late 1990s, companies have become dependent on e-mail as their primary connection with outside clients and colleagues. They even prefer e-mail for internal communications (which means employees sitting just a cubicle-length apart are writing to, rather than talking to one another). We've become so reliant on our computers and BlackBerrys that we've neglected the art of conversation.
Technology is wonderful for improving speed, but it can have a detrimental effect on personal relationships. How many times have you sent an e-mail with the best intentions, only to have its message misconstrued on the other end? A short response sent in haste can easily be misinterpreted as a lack of care -- or worse, as a sign that you're angry.
The majority of meaning construed in conversation comes not from the words themselves, but from the speakers' facial expressions and body language, according to research conducted by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian [source: Inc]. Take gestures and smiles out of the equation, and recipients can easily get the wrong idea, especially when the sender isn't the most articulate writer.
There's a cure for technology overload: Pick up the phone once in a while and make a call. Better yet, take a little walk across the office and talk to your employees face-to-face.
Respect Cultural Differences
In 1992, while touring Australia, former President George H.W. Bush flashed the peace sign to some farmers. What he didn't realize was that in Australia, his well-intentioned message was the equivalent of giving the finger.
President Bush's mistake makes for a funny anecdote, but in the workplace, a similar kind of cultural faux pas could lead to far more serious implications.
The world is shrinking. Companies not only hire foreign employees, but they also work with more colleagues abroad. As a result, management needs to be culturally sensitive and aware of the subtle differences in the way people of different nationalities interpret words and gestures.
Companies need to create an environment that's understanding of, and sensitive to, the needs of all their employees, no matter what their culture or religion. That includes providing kosher or vegetarian options in the cafeteria, allowing employees to take time off for religious holidays, and providing sensitivity training to help staff members gain a better understanding of and appreciation for all of their co-workers.
Give Good Feedback
No employee wants to exist in a vacuum. Whether they're working tirelessly to get projects done or slacking off, your workers need to know that you recognize and appreciate their efforts -- or expect them to work harder.
You don't have to hold regular meetings to share feedback, although that's one way to do it. There are many other ways to let your employees know what you're thinking -- through e-mail, phone calls, or a brief status update a couple of mornings a week.
When you do give feedback, make sure it's as clear and detailed as possible. Try to offer solutions if there is a problem. For example, don't just say, "You aren't putting in enough effort." Instead say, "When you are late 3 weeks in a row filing your budget reports, it gives me the sense that you don't have enough time invested in your accounting procedures. Can you let me know why you've been late and how we might help you get back on track with these reports?"
Don't forget to give positive feedback, too. Praise and recognition make employees feel important, which motivates them further. Take your team out to lunch to celebrate a sales milestone, get key employees gift certificates to say thanks for a job well done, or just tell them, "You did a great job on that presentation. Good work."
Give Employees What They Want
Research shows there are four things that motivate employees:
- the desire for compensation and material things
- the need to bond with others and feel as though they belong
- the need to make sense of their environment
- the desire to defend their accomplishments
[source: Psychology Today]
Satisfying the desire for compensation doesn't have to mean paying astronomical salaries. The salaries at Zappos.com, the online shoe store, are well below market rates (only about $23,000 annually for the average hourly employee), yet the company still manages to inspire almost cult-like loyalty from its employees with its free-spirited corporate culture and dedication to molding its entry-level hires into managers [source: Inc.].
Compensation doesn't have to be monetary. It can come in many forms: stock options, extra time off or even a drink out with the boss.
You can satisfy the need to bond by creating a corporate culture that's based on mutual respect and support. Instead of making employees compete against one another -- which creates a cutthroat environment in which people willingly step on their co-workers to get ahead -- reward employees as a team to encourage camaraderie.
To satisfy the third need, you must have transparency. The company's goals and the employee's responsibilities should be obvious from the moment a new person is hired. Everyone's job should be very clearly delineated, and each employee should understand how his or her individual piece fits into the bigger picture.
Finally, employees should be recognized for every contribution they make to your organization. Whether that reward comes in the form of a promotion, salary increase or just a round of applause at a company event, it's still recognition.
Trust Your People
Everyone has had at least one micromanager at some point in his or her career. This meddler is like a shadow, hanging around every employee's desk to make sure teach one turns work in on time.
You didn't hire a group of complete idiots (if you did, it wasn't a particularly good management decision). You hired people with the skill and intelligence to get the job done. That being the case, there's no need for you to hover over them.
When employees feel as though they have control over their job, they feel a sense of purpose and are more invested in the entire process. Autonomy breeds innovation and job satisfaction. Babysitting, on the other hand, makes employees feel as though the company doesn't consider them competent enough to do their job. They feel insecure and unmotivated.
Provide your workers with the tools they need to get their job done, and then give them the freedom to do it. To keep updated on their progress without meddling or micromanaging, hold weekly status meetings or ask for regular e-mail progress reports. Then back off.
Make Employees Feel Like Owners
Software giant SAS ranks at the very top of Fortunemagazine's "Best Companies to Work For" list, and with good reason. Not only does the company offer a bounty of perks -- top-notch health insurance, a state-of-the-art 66,000-square-foot fitness center and unlimited sick days -- but SAS has also built a foundation based on "trust between our employees and the company," according to CEO Jim Goodnight [source: Fortune].
Corporations built on trust actually listen to their employees. Atlas Container Corp., a Maryland-based manufacturer of shipping materials, lets its employees vote on major issues that shape the company, including health insurance, disciplinary policies and bonuses. But first, the company educates its employees about those issues to ensure they'll be informed voters.
Transparency is another important part of employee ownership. That means management doesn't keep secrets. Atlas does something that's virtually unheard of -- it opens its books, revealing its sales, costs and profits at employee meetings.
How can companies succeed when they relinquish so much control? Because motivated employees produce real results. Atlas' business has grown 25 percent for the past 10 years [source: Inc.]. Even though SAS doesn't pay the highest salaries in the industry or offer stock options, its turnover rate is unbelievably low -- just 2 percent -- compared with 22 percent for the average software company [sources: Fortune, CNN].
Take Your Emotions Out of the Equation
You try to promote professionalism at the office, but that's not always easy to do when so many different personalities converge in such a small space.
Sometimes work discussions can turn into personal attacks. When an employee is starting to get under your skin, take your emotions out of the equation. Instead, take a deep breath, count to 10 and respond in a calm, unemotional way.
When you do respond, don't make it personal. For example, instead of saying, "You did a terrible job putting together that sales presentation!" try, "Here are a few points I think you need to work on that will really add to what you've already written," or "I'm having some trouble understanding what you're trying to get across in this presentation. Can you please explain it to me?"
Also, make sure the person on the receiving end isn't taking your comments the wrong way. Everyone views the world within his or her own emotional framework. No matter now innocent your intentions, they can be misconstrued.
Ask for clarification at the end of conversations to make sure you and your employee are on the same page. You might say, "My intention in talking about your recent absences is to make sure everything is okay with your job and your health, and to see what we can do together to improve the situation. How do you feel about the issues we've discussed?"
Don't Just Hear -- Listen
You have conversations with your employees all day, but are you really listening? Here's a clue: If you're thinking ahead to the next meeting or planning tonight's dinner during the conversation, you're not paying attention.
Being an effective communicator means listening as well as talking. Sounds easy, but listening actually takes some practice.
Each time you have a conversation, pretend there's going to be a quiz at the end of it. Try to keep a mental checklist of all the important points the other person makes. When the conversation is over, force yourself to recall at least three important things the person said. Get in the habit of doing this until listening becomes second nature.
One helpful way to improve your listening skills is to repeat what the other person has said. For example, you can say something like, "I understand that you're not happy with the current health insurance policy, Frank. I'm going to look into it." Or you can say, "I want to make sure I've understood you correctly, Tim. You're telling me that you want to extend the health insurance benefits to spouses. Is that right?" This technique offers the added bonus of showing your employees that you're interested in what they have to say.
Make Work Fun
Who said a 9-to-5 job has to be drudgery? It doesn't matter whether you're producing movies or computer chips, the work day can be as fun and exciting as your company wants to make it.
If you visit Hyland Software in Cleveland, Ohio, on any given afternoon, you might find employees racing paper airplanes in the atrium or relaxing in recliners and listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean in the company's "rejuvenation station." Other companies have set aside a break area for their employees to "hang out," or bring in an ice cream truck once a month.
You don't have to come up with these kinds of creative ideas yourself. There are companies that specialize in coming up with and implementing employee perks that will do all the work for you.
Giving employees as little as 15 minutes a day to cut loose can make them much more appreciative -- and productive -- when they do need to put their noses to the grindstone.
For more information on succeeding at work, see the links on the next page.
How to Create an Action Plan for a New Job
- "100 Best Companies to Work For." Fortune. (Aug. 18, 2010.) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/bestcompanies/2010/snapshots/1.html.
- Case, John. "The Power of Listening." Inc. March 1, 2003. (Aug. 20, 2010) http://www.inc.com/magazine/20030301/25206.html.
- Chafkin, Max. "The Zappos Way of Managing." Inc. May 1, 2009. (Aug. 20, 2010) http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090501/the-zappos-way-of-managing.html.
- Fenson, Sarah. "Do as I Say: Quick Tips for Masterful Communication." Inc. March 29, 2000. http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/03/18145.html.
- Gill, Jennifer. "Squelching Office Conflicts." Inc. November 1, 2005. (Aug. 20, 2010) http://www.inc.com/magazine/20051101/handson-managing.html.
- Hakala, David. "How to Be Sensitive to Cultural and Religious Differences." HR World. May 21, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://www.hrworld.com/features/cultural-religious-sensitivity-052108/.
- Inc. Staff. "7 Tips for Motivating Employees." April 20, 2010. (Aug. 20, 2010) http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/04/tips-for-motivating-employees.html.
- Kaplan, David A. "SAS is the Best Company to Work For." CNN. January 21, 2010. (Aug. 18, 2010) http://money.cnn.com/2010/01/21/technology/sas_best_companies.fortune/
- Perkins, Olivera. "Northeast Ohio Companies Encourage Employees to Have Fun at Work." Cleveland.com. June 20, 2010. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://www.cleveland.com/best-workplaces/blog/index.ssf/2010/06/northeast_ohio_companies_encourage_employees_to_have_fun_at_work.html.
- Walters, Jamie and Sarah Fenson. "A Crash Course in Communication." Inc. August 1, 2000. (Aug. 17, 2010)http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/08/20000.html.
- Wellner, Allison Stein. "Lost in Translation." Inc. September 1, 2005. (Aug. 18, 2010) http://www.inc.com/magazine/20050901/managing.html.
- Williams, Ray B. "How to Motivate Employees: What Managers Need to Know." Psychology Today. February 13, 2010. (Aug. 20, 2010)http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/38326.