Making Communication in the Workplace Effective
Why is it that, when so many businesses commit so many resources to internal communication, people always seem to say that communication in workplaces is a significant problem?
One reason is that too often we take "communication" for granted. After all, we know how to talk to people, don't we?
In organisation surveys (and also in exit interviews) employees frequently say that no one ever tells them anything or listens to them – but managers say in reply that they seem never to stop communicating with employees on important matters.
Poor communication – or perceptions of poor communication – can be directly linked to increased operating costs and reduced efficiency because of:
- lower productivity of people
- employee dissatisfaction
- employee turnover
- lack of understanding of business strategy
- lack of common direction
In most cases, when people criticise communication in an organisation, the concern is expressed in general terms such as "communication is bad" or "we are never given enough information".
Such criticisms are hard to respond to and do not really identify specifically what the problem is with communication. (So the response is often to change nothing about the way communication is delivered – on the assumption either that there is nothing really wrong or that nothing can be done. The other reaction is to just to do more of what is already being done – thereby worsening the "problem".)
So what needs to happen?
As a first step, it is important to understand that communication is more than simply talking to people or giving information. There are a number of reasons why communication may not be effective. To apply a "generic fix" or to make changes to address the wrong cause of the breakdown will, in all probability, deliver an outcome that is not greatly improved.
Consider these four areas in which communication may fail to be effective.
Style and Method
Just as people learn in different ways, people absorb communication in a variety of ways. So, it is important to ensure that the "style" of communication is varied to ensure that everyone will understand the message.
At its most basic level, consider presenting important information in pictures, spoken and written.
Make sure that, as often as possible, your communication is "two way". There must be an opportunity for questions, discussion and clarification of the key issues. Messages, emails or notices are much more able to be misunderstood, misplaced or simply not read.
Be sure that what you are communicating has the right level of detail and is expressed in a way that the audience will understand. Too much detail will cause some people to switch off but too little detail may give the impression that there is something being hidden or avoided.
Using language that people understand, for example, means that any jargon used is understood by everyone and complex language and words are kept to a minimum.
Timing and frequency
Many organisations fall into the trap of communicating too often or too rarely with their employees. Getting the balance right is a matter of having a clear purpose for each communication and keeping to commitments rather than just a schedule.
It is also important not to save important communications with employees until the end of the day or shift or until the end of the week. The chances of a focused and interested audience are, predictably, quite small.
Make sure that the people who are delivering the communication have the skills to get the message across – that may include good written communication skills, good presentation skills or good group facilitation skills.
You may also need to invest in the skills of those being communicated with. Giving employees basic financial literacy so that they can understand business performance data, for example, will help to ensure that information about profitability, liquidity, financial statements or sales and turnover will not be ignored or misunderstood.
The outcome of your assessment
An assessment of the effectiveness of these aspects of communication between management and employees can help you to understand why communication is not as effective as it could be and should provide some clear signposts for action to redress the problems. (A good assessment should enable you to avoid the trap of just doing more of what you have already been doing.)
Out of that assessment you should have some practical information on:
- the key strengths of existing communication methods;
- the areas of communication that are not working well; and
- the types of communication that will be more effective;
When you have information like this about the communication in your organisation you can then develop a communication plan to improve the effectiveness of communication between management and the workforce.
Finally, be prepared to innovate in your communication. Doing the same thing year-in-year-out may not be delivering you the best results.
Simon Osborne is a Melbourne-based consultant. He is Director of Practical Workplace Strategies and helps organisations develop leadership skills, manage the process of change and link the skill development of people to business strategy, including through management and executive coaching. He can be contacted on +61 3 9809 4521 and by email on firstname.lastname@example.org .
For help with assessing your organization's communication practices, check out Simon Osborne's Communication Assessment Survey pack. Complete with customizable survey form and Consultant Guide, his pack covers every aspect of your survey initiative. Visit the Communication Assessment Survey information portal to download the free survey analysis worksheet and start using this comprehensive survey pack today.