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Improving Communication at Work

Every manager knows that keeping the lines of communication open at work can be difficult. Rumors, gossip and varying opinions can be detrimental to productivity and can easily gain momentum when management fails to maintain some level of transparency. When our perceptions of the world and our personal preferences or biases color our communications, they inevitably become ineffective.

In simplest terms, effective communication happens when the receiver acknowledges receipt and confirms their understanding of the information they’ve received. This situation is further complicated by the multiple communication channels we now have at our disposal. Our choice of which channel to use—in-person, email, text, phone—to deliver information can enhance or diminish the effectiveness of our communication, since both sender and receiver have their own preferences. So what to do? How do we cut through the noise of differing opinions and competing agendas, not to mention the manipulation and drama often found in the workplace?

A main reason for communication breakdown between individuals and across organizations is that working together requires management to deliver both specific work-related information and the softer social or interpersonal communication. Striking the appropriate balance for executives, managers and their direct reports requires clear delineation between the personal and professional. This is something that for humans—social creatures by nature—can be hard to do. Because our social interactions are often shaped by opinion and bias they can easily cloud our perception of our colleagues and distort communications that are critical to our business.

Respect the hierarchy – Communication often breaks down when people circumvent individuals that should be included in the communications. This can be as simple as failing to copy someone on an email, or the owner of the company sidestepping managers. Leaving someone out because you fear controversy will inevitably lead to more conflict. As for sidestepping managers, we’ve all heard a CEO say, “Why won’t anyone tell me the truth.” What a CEO might see as being inclusive by reaching out to lower-level employees can breed frustration, send the wrong signal to the employee and undermine the employee’s manager.

Take time to understand your employees’ communication preferences– Managers need to read employees and identify the most effective channel for communication. Some employees may require a one-on-one meeting to clarify a directive. Others may be fine with an email. Taking the time to understand their preference will help to build trust.

The importance of the communication sometimes determines the channel – Don’t divide and conquer. If communication is applicable to all, bring the team together and don’t leave the room until everyone acknowledges their understanding of the topic under discussion.

Acknowledge differing opinions – There’s nothing wrong with a difference of opinion. Differences should be aired as appropriate. Disagreements in understanding among managers should be resolved in the conference room. Disagreements between reports should be taken “offline” for resolution.

The bottom line is that effective communication requires trust. Building trust requires clearly stated expectations, deference to individual communication styles balanced by transparency and openness so that no one can hide, and no one is afraid to say they don’t understand.