Communicating with frontline teams

Communicating well with teams is fundamental to managing in a manner that develops high performing teams. Communication design should consider:

Functions of Communication

Communication has four functions:

  1. To acquire and share knowledge
  2. To assist decision making between alternatives
  3. To coordinate work activities
  4. To relate to individuals on a personal level.

Barriers to effective communication

The steps in a communication process are:

article - communicating with teams - process


  • The Sender encodes the message and sends it to the Receiver, via a communication channel
  • The encoded message is received by the Receiver and decoded
  • The process is then repeated.

Receivers of communication will filter, distort and delete elements of the communication during this process.

article - communicating with teams - communication

These barriers to effective communication depend on attributes of the person and characteristics of the encoded message sent. They comprise:

  • Mood – if they are in a bad mood they are less likely to listen actively
  • Personality and communication preferences – they may prefer a verbal channel of communication over a written channel
  • Thinking styles – they may prefer to hear about detail rather than the overview or the “big picture”
  • Information overload – they may be receiving too much information both in terms of being told too many things at once and being overloaded on a sensory level with words, pictures and sounds all at once
  • Language – they may not understand the language either from a cultural perspective or from the use of business jargon, acronyms and slang terms
  • Incongruence – the sender may be sending out two different messages with the words they speak, the tone and pace of their voice and their body language, forcing the receiver to judge which is the real message. Note the normal hierarchy is body language>>tone and pace of voice>>words.

To develop an approach to communicating with employees and obtaining feedback, managers must take into account the communication process when they communicate and when they receive feedback.

Getting feedback from the team

Sometimes people are reluctant to give personal feedback by way of verbal communication.

Two approaches can help overcome this reluctance:

  1. Use an anonymous channel to give feedback. This is best done if people have easy access to (and are comfortable with) a keyboard, mouse and intranet pages. Online feedback offers the anonymity of remote use and the absence of handwriting to identify people
  2. Give your employees opportunities to participate in negative brainstorming. Instruct employees to come up with all the negative ideas about why an initiative will not work or why a problem cannot be fixed. It is a strong human nature to be negative. Work with it and ensure that people know that you want them to be negative rather than positive. When you get the output, you will have a detailed and broad range of elements of the problems you face. Summarise them and in subsequent sessions turn the team’s attention to solving the problems one by one. They will already know half the solution by the nature of the negative ideas they have already expressed. For example: “We can’t get orders out on time because product is not cleared from quality control early enough!” is a prime topic for a ‘five whys’ approach or an Ishikawa diagram.

Communication enablers

Communicating successfully with and within teams requires:

  • Proximity
  • Warm communication channels for complex communication, cool channels for simple information
  • Visibility – visual management.


Removing barriers to the communication process is an obvious step in improving communication. The level of filtering, distorting and deleting information reduces when there is a rapport between the sender and the receiver and when the sender and the receiver communicate often. Rapport builds with trust and trust builds with shared – or at least, understood – and acknowledged values.

Employees who work in proximity of each other and their manager are more likely to ask questions of one another and to talk about their personal lives. In doing so, they are more likely to understand each others’ values. Employees who work remotely from each other are more likely to have a superficial knowledge of each other, personally and professionally.

Ensure that your team have proximity, to take advantage of informal and formal communication channels.

Communication channels:

Communication effectiveness changes with the use of different channels (see figure below).

article - communicating with frontline teams - communication channels

Two-way channels such as a two-way communication by email or on the phone where the sender and receiver can ask and answer questions are generally more effective than one-way communications such as memos and posters or audio tapes.

The more that the sender and receiver can enjoy observing all elements of communication – including the words, tone and pace of voice and body language – the more effective the communication becomes.

Video is an effective communication channel. Even though it is one-way, it allows the receiver to view all three elements of communication.

Communicate complex information by means of two-way channels. Communicate simple information by way of two-way or one-way communication channels dependent on its importance.

One-way channels are made more effective when we:

  • Use colour, size and font choices that attract attention for written communications
  • Allow the user to interact. For example, by using checklists:
    Communication checklist x/?
    1. I understand the receiver’s preferred thinking style (big picture, people, logical thought, detail)
    2. I understand their preferred communication style
    3. I have used a channel which is appropriate for the complexity of the communication
  • Use pictures to support text when messages are complex. For example: “set up the breakfast station like this:”

article - communicating with frontline teams - breakfast

  • Change the colour shape, size and nature of posters so that people do not “see” the same message when you change the message.

Visual management

Visual management is an important tool for communication with frontline teams.

There are two types of visual management:

  1. Displays of information required by employees to enable them to make decisions and to perceive that they are in control
  2. Visual controls that guide the actions of employees. For example: STOP signs, traffic flow indicators, shadow boards for parts or tools.

The major concepts behind visual management, include:

  • Performance data that is available for everyone to see
  • Visual controls that describe workplace safety, material flow, production throughput or other information that helps employees understand what to do, where to go, when to do something and how to do it
  • Audio signals that are used to denote malfunction
  • Visual information that helps prevent errors by colour coding dial gauges, pipes, wires, connectors etc.
  • Visual management that allows employees to know when something is out of place and when error rates are outside of bounds.

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