“You’re just not listening are you?”
A familiar exasperated cry of a manager talking to an employee? A mother to a child? A teenager to a parent? A staff member to a colleague?
Often, we think the accountability for communicating rests equally with the sender and receiver. Or in frustration, we may think it is the accountability of the receiver.
In our view, it is always the accountability of the sender.
So if we are to communicate with our staff and our teams, what should we know about communicating to them so we may take our accountability seriously?
Functions of Communication
Communication has four functions:
- To acquire, and share knowledge
- To assist decision making between alternatives
- To coordinate work activities
- To relate to individuals on a personal level.
We may change the structure and style of our communication, dependent on the function it serves for us in a particular circumstance. The communication process, at a general level, however, remains the same.
The key elements in a communication process are:
- The message as the sender encodes it
- The channel used by the sender
- The message as decoded by the receiver
- Repeated process from receiver to sender.
Receivers of communication will filter, distort and delete elements of the communication during this process.
These barriers to effective communication depend on personal attributes and characteristics of the encoded message sent.
- 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, we must take into account the communication process when we communicate and when we receive feedback.
Sometimes, people are reluctant to give personal feedback by way of verbal communication.
Two approaches can help overcome this reluctance:
- Use an anonymous channel to give feedback. This is best done if people have easy access and are comfortable with keyboard, mouse and intranet pages, through the internet as it offers the anonymity of remote use and the absence of handwriting
- Give 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 we get the output, we will have a detailed and broad range of elements of the problems we face. We can then 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.
Getting Team Cooperation Through Communication
Communicating successfully to and within teams requires:
- 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. Much of the way people filter, distort and delete 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 talk about their personal lives – thus building an understanding of values – and are more likely to ask questions of one another, thus building shared knowledge. Employees who work remotely from each other are more likely to have a superficial knowledge of each other, both personally and professionally.
We should ensure our key teams have proximity, to take advantage of informal and formal communication channels.
Communication effectiveness changes with the use of different channels (see figure below).
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:
|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:
- 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 is an important tool in the implementation of employee communication, with regard to standard we expect to maintain in the workplace.
There are two types of visual management:
- Displays of information required by employees to enable them to make decisions and to perceive that they are in control
- 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 is available for everyone to see
- Visual controls 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 are used to denote malfunction
- Visual information helps prevent errors by colour coding dial gauges, pipes, wires, connectors etc.
- Visual management allows employees to know when something is out of place and when error rates are outside of bounds.