If you asked 100 people to name the biggest obstacle they face in their companies, a large portion would identify either poor communication or a general lack of communication. Yet, it is necessary to communicate effectively throughout organizations to improve current practices, develop better products, install new business growth strategies, address employee performance issues and more. It can be argued that effective communication is critical to every company’s success.
So why is communication such a problem in companies? Not too many people would admit to being poor communicators. In fact, most of us think we communicate pretty well. The things we are trying to communicate are perfectly clear to us, whether we speak them or write them. However, if communication is actually the sending, receiving and understanding of information, then maybe breakdowns occur in the last two components. We need to ensure communication is truly a “closed-loop” system.
Although managers are responsible for initiating a great deal of the communication that occurs in companies, there are times when important communication is needed from employees as well. Examples include someone doing something unethical (or worse), a co-worker not working in a safe manner, the occurrence of significant quality problems or hearing bad news from a customer. In these situations, as well as many others, employees must be willing to speak up.
In the book “Crucial Conversations,” authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler cite people feeling “unsafe” as the main reason why they do not speak up at critical times. Feeling unsafe can manifest itself in a number of ways, including complete silence, passively changing the subject or even anger. Dialog can be used to make people feel safer and reduce these counter-productive behaviors. The authors describe dialogue as the “free-flow of meaning between people.” The key word used here is meaning, not just information. Procedures, numbers, policies and so forth might have a great deal of meaning to the person communicating them, but might not have similar meaning to the person receiving them. When we communicate to our employees, we need to recognize the importance of a shared meaning.
So how do we make employees feel safe enough to engage in the dialogue needed to support effective communication in our organizations? Like so many things, this begins with mutual trust. Trust will develop in employees if managers take time to listen to them while striving to be understood by them. After all, if someone does not believe the messenger, they are unlikely to believe the message. This means providing employees with opportunities to speak about what is important to them, even if we disagree, without fear of retribution. We can also build trust when we point out the similarities between different ideas and not just the differences. Often there is more similarity in ideas than we think, and we can find it if we are willing to hold our emotions in check and not view every outcome as “win/lose.”
Likewise, in order to maintain dialogue, we must be careful not to over-analyze what others say. Instead, treat what people say as what they mean if you don’t possess facts to the contrary.
I once had a very important conversation with a co-worker during which I began to think he had a hidden agenda that would ultimately hurt my department. This perception was affecting my thinking about the matter being discussed. However, as the discussion went on and the facts became clear, my perception changed and we arrived at a mutually beneficial solution. If I had not changed my perception, which was causing me to ignore some of the facts, I am convinced we would not have come to such a workable solution.
Once we establish trust with our employees, we must be sure there is a mutual purpose in any dialogue. Everyone must recognize that we all want the same thing in the end: to make the company successful. Sometimes this mutual purpose is not obvious and needs to be discovered as we proceed, but it must be discovered if there is to be true dialogue. Take the time to do this. In the example of my discussion with a former co-worker, the mutual purpose was finding a way to make it easier for our customers to do business with us, which would lead to happier customers and more business from them. Both of us recognizing this mutual purpose was another contributor to our successful outcome.
When an organization fails to communicate effectively, everyone loses. Good ideas don’t get heard, and opportunities are missed. Problems are discovered too late to take corrective action. Needed changes do not receive the necessary support and are not adopted. Perhaps most important of all, the best possible decisions are not always made.
Effective communication is critical among managers and all employees in order for a company to truly be successful.