Workplace Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw
Truer words have never been spoken. Communication or the lack thereof, is probably the one topic that repeatedly comes up when organizations discuss how they can improve. It doesn’t matter how many times we talk about it, or how many times we try to improve it, it always seems to need more discussion and more improvement.
The need for effective communication is not rocket science. It also needs to be a two-way street. Actually, maybe even more than two-way.
Top-down communication (from management to employees) promotes and disseminates clearly defined goals, objectives and vision; and demonstrates that management supports and values the products and services that are its mission, and the people who work to deliver those products or services. Executive team members need to communicate the desired direction of the organization in a way that makes sense to all employees; in a way they can relate it to how they do their jobs each day, and what it all means for them. Without that, you have no engagement, no "buy-in" from the people who carry out your mission.
In day to day operations, managers and supervisors need to clearly communicate with their employees. They need to communicate the organization’s mission, vision and values, and what that means to their employees. When changes are afoot, or when problems arise, communication is essential. Failure to adequately communicate leaves an information vacuum that will be filled with assumptions, rumors, and drama that will rival a good, old-fashioned soap opera. When left in the dark, employees will fill in the blanks with their own speculations and it won’t be pretty.
There is often a disconnect when executive teams expect mid-level managers and supervisors to pass along information and that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen effectively. The result is that the rest of the employee base then assumes no one is communicating with them about anything. That’s when you get resentment and dissatisfaction.
Managers and supervisors need to also be able to clearly explain to their employees their job responsibilities and duties, ways and protocol of getting the work done as well as the results which are expected of them, and how to improve their performance if it is not up to the mark. A well-informed employee will have a better attitude than a less-informed employee. When people understand what’s going on, and why it’s happening, they are much more likely to support whatever decisions or changes are made. At the least, if your employees know what you want of them and what you don’t want of them, operations will be much smoother.
Bottom-up communication (from employees to management) is really just as important. The folks on the front lines may be the first to know when something isn’t working the way it was intended. They certainly know when something is going really wrong. But often, they don’t tell anyone who can actually do anything about it. We’re not psychic, people! Tell us! When you have a problem, whether it’s with a job task, a customer, or a co-worker, we need to know. If you don’t understand what you should do, or how to do it, ask. There is no way we can help you or even attempt to address a problem we know nothing about.
Certainly, there are those managers or supervisors who fail to listen to their employees. They fail to understand that open communication in the workplace can help prevent and resolve many conflicts, and fail to understand that not communicating causes a great deal of conflict and problems. They will lose the respect and the support of their employees.
Lateral Communication I’m referring mostly to interdepartmental or interfunctional communication here. It’s not possible to function effectively if needed information is not shared in a timely, effective fashion. Or worse, not shared at all. The failure to communicate effectively and withhold important information can lead to wasted time, money and effort. It can be dangerous to the organization if the lack of communication leads to compliance issues or legal risks.
The Shared Responsibility to Communicate In a workplace, we’re all supposed to be adults. What this means is that not only do we need to talk to one another and impart needed information, but we all have the responsibility to listen to and act appropriately on the information we receive. Information is passed along in many different ways – verbal, written, visual – we have one to one conversations, group meetings, presentations, newsletters, websites, emails, policies, handbooks, etc. Most organizations utilize all these methods to get information out to everyone who needs it. Please, please, for the love of all that’s good and right, don’t say "I didn’t know" or "no one told me" or "I didn’t see that". You did know, you did see it and you were told. Listen to it and act appropriately in regard to what has been communicated to you.
In the end, complaints about too much information, not enough information, or bad information, will continue in most workplaces. We will never totally solve these issues but, making a commitment to increase the effectiveness of your organization’s communication and meet your own responsibility for communicating, and listen to others’ communications, will only serve to make us all more successful.