Communicating Effectively in the Workplace


I had the opportunity recently to go through an old file cabinet at a family member’s home. In addition to personal papers, I came across some real relics — carbon copies of business letters typed on onion-skin paper. For those of you who don’t remember a world without personal computers, it may be a challenge to understand what business communication was like a generation ago. No PCs. No Palm Pilots. No email. Often, no voice mail! And secretaries were a familiar part of every office landscape. The letters I came across were the way people communicated at one time. A letter was dictated, typed, revised, re-typed, signed, and mailed. Then a response was generated, mailed, received, opened, and digested. The avenues of communication available then actually dictated the very pace of business. Can you imagine trying to function that way now?

Today, most employees, regardless of level in the organization, are responsible for their own rapid communication both with one another and outside the company. Computers and email have changed everything — and perhaps not always for the best. The pace of the workplace today requires more efficient and effective communication than ever before, yet so little time is spent on it! Virtually everyone is competing in a global marketplace. With stiffer competition, demands on business efficiency steadily escalate. And that means better communication is a requirement, not an option.

Think for a moment about your own preferences in regard to communication. Many people like individual face-to-face, give-and-take dialog. Others prefer what they perceive to be the more efficient tool of email. Still others simply prefer a casual, drop in style of communicating with office mates. So which style is best? Frankly, it depends.

Most of us have a natural communication style. I once worked for a manager who explained to me gravely that his boss hated email, and that we needed to plan to meet regularly with this man, face-to-face in his office. These meetings happened as needed, several times a week. They were always very brief and to the point, and business was done efficiently this way. I’ve also worked with people who document every conversation with a follow-up email. Some do this simply to keep a record of the conversation. Others do it to confirm a decision or an understanding. Some feel strongly that they need the protection of a written record.

Once you have a sense of the kind of communication your management prefers, you need to figure out how much communication is appropriate, on which topics, with what level of detail, and in what style. Let’s assume for a moment that you and your manager have worked out what decision-making latitude you have in a particular area. Unless your manager has specifically asked for periodic updates on these activities, don’t bother him with them. If you do need to consult before making a critical decision, make sure the information you provide is relevant. Don’t waste your time and your manager’s time by adding in a lot of detail unnecessary to the discussion. Some people really like a narrative style of communication. Others find a narrative style ponderous and difficult to digest. For those people, use bullet points, either to present your information or to summarize it after a narrative explanation.

Another pet peeve of managers receiving communication from subordinates has to do with what I think of “throwing it over the wall.” An employee may be aware that a particular decision has to be made above his level. Instead of providing the necessary background, he simply passes the problem along to his management.

A far better way to proceed would be to present the problem, supply some background, suggest several alternatives, and list the pros and cons of the alternatives. Why go to all this trouble for a decision you are not authorized to make? Several reasons. You want your boss to rely on you and on your judgment. If you simply throw problems over the wall between your offices, he has no idea of how you are thinking about the issue or even if you understand it. He’s far less likely to think of you when future decisions need to be made, and even when a promotional opportunity arises. Secondly, you are trying your wings in a pretty safe environment. Your manager will evaluate the options you’ve presented. Hopefully he will revisit them with you, and you will have the opportunity to understand why a particular course of action was chosen.

I once knew a teacher who had an overcrowded classroom of rowdy kids. She kept a little file box on her desk with a card in it for each child in her class. Any time an event or issue arose that involved that child, she made a short note to herself on that child’s card in her file box. When conference time came around, she had relevant, documented information to share on successes and opportunities for improvement for each child in her class. How does this idea apply to the business world? I believe in several ways.

If you are a manager of people, get yourself a file box! The same can be accomplished with a notebook, obviously. How about your critical projects, or contacts, or assignments, or customers? I have seen shop foreman carry little notebooks around to keep up with the details of their jobs. Still others, with desk jobs, may keep electronic “notes” on various aspects of their jobs. The key is to find a way that works for you to keep up with the often overwhelming amount of information that comes your way each day. Of course, there are any number of both paper and electronic “systems” on the market designed to help you keep track of information and therefore enhance your ability to communicate effectively in the work place.

The bottom line is that effective workplace communication is absolutely critical to your success and to the success of your organization. Consider establishing several goals for yourself in the area of communication. Try devising a way that works for you to keep track of projects and assignments in such a way that you can easily status them and communicate the status to others. In addition, cultivate a style of communication with your manager that is the opposite of “throwing it over the fence.”

Learn to present options and sets of solutions rather than problems. Finally, develop a systematic way to keep track of ideas and solutions that occur to you. Revisit these regularly and make an effort to follow up on the ones that seem to have the most promise. If you are successful in these efforts, you will not only be successful in communicating at work, you will be regarded as someone who communicates his own value to the rest of the organization.

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