As an executive at a growing software company, one of the toughest challenges I face is ensuring that members of our team are communicating well–both with each other and with our customers. Breakdowns can occur throughout an organization and, when not addressed properly, may result in mistakes, hurt feelings and occasionally even major conflicts that impact everyone’s effective collaboration.
One of the most common problems that puts stress on managers and their teams is unproductive time spent working through conflicts and miscommunication. It’s an issue that impacts all levels of an organization and is commonly cited as an obstacle to success by corporate executives.
Businesses that emphasize effective communication within their organizations see benefits in the form of increased productivity and improved employee morale. Whether you’re running a small business with just a few people or a huge enterprise, the following practices can ensure that things run smoothly and effectively.
Here are 7 keys to effective communication in the workplace:
1. Set an Agenda – We’ve all heard that meetings need specific topics and agendas, and we know it helps to set a duration limit as well. Those are the minimums required to give attendees the information they need to be prepared for the meeting. I have to admit, I’m guilty of scheduling a meeting and waiting until the last minute to put out an agenda, which means I’ve given our team very little time to be prepared to contribute in the discussion. The discipline of assembling an agenda and distributing it in a reasonable amount of time in advance is an important element of an effective communications strategy.
2. Avoid the Bait-and-Switch – I recently sat in on a meeting with our sales team that was supposed to focus on the status of our customer pipeline. Within a few minutes, the conversation had diverted to an operational issue that was affecting one of our customers. This discussion lasted over 20 minutes before we got back to the intended meeting topic. The real problem with this diversion was that we already had another team working on a solution to the issue. With only an hour allotted for that meeting, we had spent a third of it on an issue that was already being addressed. This prevented a discussion that was much more critical to the sales team.
Meetings are often sold as a discussion about one topic and then end up in an entirely different place. For team members who aren’t interested or relevant to the diversion, it’s a poor use of their time. Have you ever walked out of a meeting and said, “What a waste of time?” Then you may have been the victim of a meeting bait-and-switch.
Bottom line… whether you’re in a one-on-one conversation or a large group meeting, it is vital to stay focused on the central issue at hand.
3. Be Present – While much of our team is based in our corporate office, a significant number of employees work from remote locations. As such, we communicate on a regular basis via conference calls. This can be a frustrating method of interaction, because it’s like an open invitation for remote participants to multi-task or, unfortunately, do completely unrelated things.
Instead of having their full engagement in discussions, it isn’t uncommon to hear someone tapping out an email. I’ve “witnessed” people texting, reading, having other conversations, making breakfast, even sleeping! In an effort to ensure more present participation, we’ve equipped all of our employees with webcams and have a corporate subscription to a web conferencing service. We’ve also established a guideline that any meetings which involve remote team members will be done via web conference. While this can throw cold water on those who like to work in their pajamas, it has helped us achieve the goal of driving more engagement. The camera allows for participants to see each other and read facial expressions. With more and more companies utilizing remotely-located staff working from other locations, it’s important to maintain as much of the connectedness and engagement of actual physical proximity as possible.
4. Honestly, Be Direct! – We have made a conscious effort to build a company culture that encourages respect for our fellow team members, provides an empowering environment, and emphasizes the value of every individual’s contributions. This is a meaningful part of who we are as a company, and it’s a big reason that all of us enjoy coming to work each day. One unintended consequence, though, is that team members occasionally avoid saying what they really think, because they’re afraid of how it might be received. That, of course, isn’t really helping anyone. It’s almost always better to communicate an honest opinion or thought in a respectful way, even if it may be the catalyst for conflict or push back. This actually isn’t all that difficult to do, and the value of open, constructive conversation is immeasurable.
5. Keep Emotions Out of It – If you want to drive a business conversation off the rails, feel free to inject some judgment mixed with a little sarcasm (see what I did there?). It’s important to have passion and to be able to say what you think, but when unconstructive emotion is added to a conversation, the results are rarely good. When a business conversation gets emotional, it can be one of the most unproductive, debilitating things an organization has to manage. Some such conversations resolve themselves quickly, but for those that don’t, hours can be spent in resolution management.
6. Email Can Be Evil – Okay, not really. But it’s important to remember what email is: a tool for disseminating information. It isn’t designed for conversations. That’s what telephones are for. Email doesn’t allow the communication of emotional nuances and body language. Often, a brief email sent in a hurry is interpreted as a curt or rude statement, which can result in an unintended emotional reaction. In our organization, we encourage email for information and the phone for actually talking.
7. Put It in Writing – As work days get busier and more information gets processed through our brains, it’s inevitable that our memories start to fail. I had an important discussion just a few days ago in which several action items were agreed on. They were so clear in my mind that I didn’t bother to document them. Today–a few hundred emails, texts, and phone calls later–I realized that I wasn’t certain what we agreed to do. This resulted in an extra call to review what had already been discussed‒an unproductive use of time for two individuals. Documenting discussions and distributing minutes after a meeting keeps a definitive record for future reference and promotes accountability.
None of this may seem like a revelation, but you’d be surprised how challenging it can be to get individuals thinking and communicating along these lines if they aren’t used to it–even if they agree on the value of such techniques. Common sense doesn’t always necessarily result in common practice. So even if it seems obvious, share it with your team and start by implementing it yourself. You may find things running just a bit smoother and more efficiently, allowing you and your team to focus more on your business’ actual goals!