Whether in-person, remote, or practicing a hybrid model, today’s teams have more options than ever before for communicating with each other. But even though we are enabled with ample tools and technologies designed to improve communication and productivity, we are still struggling with effectively communicating with our employees. With the changes in what’s expected of managers in the modern workplace comes some new responsibilities to our team members. In addition to being responsible for the output of the team and the interests of the shareholders, company, and customers, today’s leaders are also charged with making sure our employees are happy, engaged, and feel connected to the team.
Nearly all of the responsibilities of a manager boil down to the ability to effectively communicate with others. This is challenging because there are so many different communication styles, and no two people communicate in the same way. Making a misstep in the way you try to communicate with someone can result in a missed deadline, misalignment on a project, hurt feelings, or an even greater offense. Effectively communicating with others is the foundation of being able to produce results, work collaboratively, and be successful as a team.
There are a number of different ways we’ve categorized communication styles. There is the classic set of four behavioral communication styles: assertive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and passive. This approach defines one’s communication style based on their “tendency to express feelings, needs, and thoughts by means of indirect messages and behavioral impacts” and puts a large emphasis on our nonverbal communication. Another popular way of identifying communication styles is the DISC method. This also divides the communication styles and teamwork approaches into four categories of dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness, often with people having more than one focus.
From a linguistic perspective, behavioral communication styles can be broken down into how competitive versus affiliative your communication approach is, or whether you approach a subject directly or indirectly. And finally, there is the approach that dissects communication styles into whether or to what extent you communicate using emotions or data on one axis, and if you communicate in a linear fashion or a more free-form way on the other. This method breaks down the styles into analytical, intuitive, functional, and personal categories.
Whichever approach you use to analyze your own communication methods and the way in which members of your team communicate, the most important piece is that you are choosing the right style for the right audience. Learning to be flexible in your approach to communication and being willing to adapt and try different approaches in order for your message to be heard--and to hear what others are saying to you, will allow you to lead more effectively, be more productive, and results in your team being more connected and better equipped to handle whatever challenges you may encounter.
Here are five strategies that address common communication pitfalls that many companies experience.
Issues with consistency in communication often stem from a lack of clarity and alignment around a project. When this happens, it can cause employees to feel frustrated, unsure of their role on a project, or left out of the loop. With more teams working remotely or having distributed members, there is greater opportunity for this type of inconsistent communication. If the confusion or inconsistency is due to your own mixed messaging, the easiest way to solve the problem is to bring the team together and clear up any misunderstandings in a group setting to ensure everyone is in alignment, is on the same page, and understands their responsibilities clearly. Including any project stakeholders or contributors in the conversation will not only clear up misunderstandings, but also ensures that everyone knows what the project objectives are, who is responsible for what, and are aligned around deadlines and deliverables.
One fairly common reason for messaging to be inconsistent on teams is due to not wanting to upset people or being conflict-averse. Even the best-aligned teams will experience conflict from time to time, and it is the job of the manager to recognize that avoiding conflict is not a solution nor will it serve to solve the problem at hand. Being as direct as possible and recognizing that sometimes as a manager you need to deliver tough feedback will ultimately work toward getting you closer to your desired outcome and can better serve the team overall.
Bottom line: When your team can rely on straightforward, consistent communication from the leadership, they can focus on doing their jobs without worrying that there is something missing or that they don’t have all the information.
As companies work more cross-functionally, there will naturally be some need for crossover in getting stakeholders up to speed on the different technologies, systems, and jargon that go along with each respective area or department. The worlds of engineering and sales are very different, but on teams or with projects that involve both groups, there needs to be a common language used so that everyone understands what is happening and what is expected of them in order to do their jobs and work together.
Organizations and functional departments that are known to be heavy on technical jargon, like sales, marketing, and engineering should try to avoid using industry-specific abbreviations and acronyms unless they are sure everyone shares a similar understanding of the terms. This is especially important to remember when speaking to individuals outside of the organization or new members of the team. When people feel like they don’t understand the words or phrases being used, it can cause confusion, feelings of alienation, and disengagement from the team.
Aside from technical or industry jargon, another pervasive language and communication pitfall is the use of general office jargon or phrases that are vague enough to create confusion on what is actually meant. Some examples of these include “getting our ducks in a row,” “getting buy-in,” or “sending something over the wall.” The use of vague business jargon like this masks the real meaning of what you are trying to convey and serves mostly to cause confusion about what actually is happening.
Bottom line: When at all possible, speak plain English and be as clear and direct as possible to avoid confusion.
As a leader, one of your roles is to ensure that your employees are working together as a team and to address any conflicts or areas of improvement that might crop up along the way. One of these areas that can often be overlooked is communication. This means taking action when employees or team members are bringing concerns directly to you as their manager, but it also falls on you to identify places where communication issues are occurring in a more subtle but still disruptive fashion.
This can mean making it a point to try to elevate unheard voices, attribute ideas and work to team members who added value but might not be the ones who are delivering the presentation or speaking for the group, and giving people space and airtime to voice their thoughts and perspectives. This can be especially necessary on teams that have a few dominant voices that tend to jump in first or take over a conversation. It can help set the tone and shift the culture to actively support and elevate other, less dominant voices or even to call out when people are being spoken over or are taking up all of the airtime.
Another way in which communication can be reinforced as a leadership function is by practicing good and open communication at the leadership level. Creating and facilitating a company or team culture where ideas are heard and considered, input and feedback are welcomed and solicited, and innovative thinking is valued will set the tone for how team members and co-workers interact and communicate with each other.
Bottom line: One of your charges as a manager is to ensure your team is functioning as smoothly as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to address issues with communication as they arise and to model good communication practices yourself.
Sometimes breakdowns in communication are due to technological challenges or choosing the wrong method for the message. With so many channels available to us, we can fall into the habit of relying on a single mode of communication for everything, even if it’s not always the right fit, or conversely, using too many channels so that notes and messages get lost or confused. Recognize that different channels work better than others for different types of messaging.
When the message is informal, is just a quick outreach, or needs to be communicated to a larger group of people, using a chat or IM service like Slack can be the best way to touch base or share information. When there is a lot of detail that needs to be communicated or you want to ensure a record of the information is logged that can be searched for later, email can be a better method. If there is a topic that needs to be discussed in detail or brainstormed, a phone call or video chat can be the best medium for communicating.
Knowing how your team members prefer to communicate and which channels align with their respective communication styles can also inform how to set communication expectations for your team. Identifying what works best for whom and when to use what tools and setting this as a baseline for your communication norms can alleviate some of the stress and confusion about the best ways to communicate. Checking in with your team about what is working and what isn’t periodically can help you to keep the lines of communication open and inform you about when to make adjustments to your process.
Bottom line: Ask your team what the best way to communicate is and look at what is working and where the gaps are to devise a communication plan that works for everyone.
It can be easy to forget that communication isn’t only about sharing information. It’s also about listening to what others have to say. As leaders, we often think about messaging from the focal point of what we want to convey to our teams and how to go about it. But we also need to think about how we are as listeners. It’s natural that we are better at talking than we are at listening. But as leaders, being able to actively listen to our employees, counterparts, stakeholders, and customers is just as important as getting our own point across.
Listening is more than just staying quiet while someone else is speaking. Active listening requires giving the other person your undivided attention, taking time to reflect and absorb what they are saying (and not saying in some instances), summarizing back to them what you heard to establish that you understand, and then sharing back your own thoughts and reactions. By becoming more attuned to listening to others, we can expand our worldviews and perspectives by allowing others to influence how we are currently thinking.
Encouraging active listening practices across your team can also help reinforce a culture built around effective communication. Individuals on your team who seem to struggle with active listening might need a different approach or may not realize they are having trouble in this area. Differences in work styles and communication styles can sometimes look like disinterest or disengagement. Having a conversation with your team members individually about how they process information ways in which you can support their needs can be the solution to what looks outwardly like an area of opportunity.
Bottom line: Listening is just as important as sharing information, and creating a culture where individuals listen to each other and encourage innovative ideas as well as feel heard builds team cohesion and mutual respect.
It’s important to remember that communication is like any other aspect of running a business or successful team: it takes practice. Communication can always be improved and if you actively work at it, those muscles get stronger.