I see this everywhere and it is frustrating. Improving communication at your company is not about telling people more. When your employees give company-wide feedback that “communication is something that could improve”, they are not looking for more meetings, more emails, a community bulletin board in the break area, or more memos. They are not looking for an intranet site dedicated to what is going on in the company. They are not even looking for a Twitter or Facebook site to keep them up to date. While all these things are nice, that is not what they are talking about.
What they are looking for is conversation. 50% of communication involves listening. And I don’t mean waiting for them to stop talking, I mean really listening. A skill many supervisors and managers do poorly and give horrendously low priority. We often get caught up in the daily hustle of all our “to do”s that we end up including employee conversations into multiTASKing. We keep typing on our computer, we talk on the phone, we shuffle papers, fill out TPS reports (don’t forget the new cover sheets), and click on the Outlook message to see who that new email is from. We do everything but what good active listening entails: good eye contact and 100% focus on the person speaking, all in the interest in essentially making that conversation shorter than the employee wants it to be because we are “busy”. HELLO! Your job is getting the most out of people and if I feel you do not care about me enough to look away from your computer screen for 10 minutes, then you won’t get my best – you’ll get good enough.
There is a reason I capitalized “TASK” in multiTASKing above. People do not typically enjoy being treated as a task, a number, a “to do” list item. I always get leery around someone who says they are a good listener, since I believe that judgment is best made by the people on the other end of your conversations. I paraphrase Stephen Covey when I say, “you can be efficient with things, but you must be effective with people.” Treating people as something that needs to be “handled” is not going to improve communication and may likely harm the relationship you have with your employees.
So what do you do when you are in the middle of something important or deadline driven and your employee wants to talk? First, let them know that you want to talk with them and give them some dedicated time. Then (and this is an important tip to improve your effectiveness) say “AND”, not ‘but”. Then tell them that right now you have something pressing on your desk and give them a time when you can give them a dedicated time. So it would sound something like this, “I really want to talk with you AND I need to finish this proposal. How about we meet at 2:30 and I can give you my undivided attention?” If you say it sincerely and you truly give them undivided attention at 2:30, they will feel more listened to.
Regardless whether or not your office door is physically open or not, if I walk through it and you treat me as though I am “unimportant”*, you might as well put up a sign at your office door telling me “come in, sit down and get ready to be ignored.” Your ‘open door’ policy is only as good as the time you give your employees to talk with you. Nothing shuts it faster than ignoring them when they come in.
From a company-wide perspective, communication is perceived to improve when employees feel they have a voice. As changes that will effect employees begin to happen, get their input, and LISTEN. Often your employees are your scouts on the ground and can have some valuable insight to obstacles that need to be navigated or removed. A large indicator of whether employees are committed to a certain initiative is how greatly they feel involved in the discussions. If you are not listening to your employees about how changes affect them, you are losing a large part of the engagement you need to ensure its success.
Communication is not unidirectional. As I said earlier, you cannot talk “to” your employees and consider it communication. In fact, by its etymology, communication is defined as a two directional effort. The Latin word from which it stems is communis, which means to share. Sharing only occurs if both parties are active. If you give me something and I do not give it back, then we are not truly sharing. Communication by definition involves reciprocity.
If you want to improve communication, raise engagement, and get the most out of your employees, talk “with” them more and “to” them less.
* – most often cited feeling when people are not being listened to