Effective Communication is Direct Communication, and All Good Managers Need to Make Time for It
I already had this article half written, but finding this in the 7-Eleven bathroom today provided too good an illustration to pass up:
See it? “NEED TOWELS” scratched into the paint on the paper towel dispenser.
What do you think? Did the person who etched the somewhat urgent message hang around near the dispenser until an employee came in, saw it, and filled it with towels? Or do you think they checked back later on, possibly waiting until then to wash and dry their hands?
No doubt leaving the restroom to bring the situation to the attention of an employee wouldn’t have taken more time or effort as wielding a tool to carefully carve such precise lettering on the metal machine casing.
Maybe they didn’t want to be seen in public with un-dried hands?
Whatever the reason, evidently this was someone’s chosen method of communicating. Of all the options available, for this person, in this instance, scratching a couple words on an inanimate object seemed the way to go.
There are too many questions surrounding why someone would do this, but one thing I’m fairly certain of is they did not get the towels they wanted as an immediate response to their vandalistic inscription.
It’s unfortunate the same sort of communicating occurs all too frequently in the business world. Particularly from managers to the people they supervise.
“The employees still aren’t using the new methods we want in place.”
“I don’t know why. I PUT A SIGN UP about it…”
Ever encounter a situation like that? Maybe it wasn’t a sign, maybe it was an email. Maybe it was a memo. Whatever the method, if it was anything other than direct, face to face open dialogue, is it any wonder it was either (a) misunderstood, (b) overlooked or ignored, or (c) not received at all?
NEED COMPLIANCE left on notes is about as effective as NEED TOWELS…
There are, admittedly, reasons we might sometimes choose to communicate through these methods. It might seem efficient. It might seem like we can reach more people in a shorter length of time, with minimal effort. What’s left out of the equation, though, is the time it takes to clarify, follow up, repeat, and reinforce. Efficiency is optimized through the accurate transmission and reception of ideas in the fewest amount of steps. Considering all the work required to revisit a memo, the upfront investment of time it takes to talk with someone personally is often much more rewarding.
There are also bad reasons for choosing non-direct communication. Laziness. Lack of leadership ability. Lack of conviction in the message. Fear of push back. Not the kinds of qualities effective managers want to exhibit.
In addition to simply being more efficient, there are at least four other benefits to direct communication:
- It enhances “buy-in.”
Not my favorite term, but it is a real thing. Call it commitment, call it agreement, call it whatever you want. Reality is, by sending a message downward from afar, you limit it. Even when communicating a directive upon which the recipient can have no influence, their simple inclusion in the discussion can make them feel involved and respected, and that increases the likelihood of their support.
2. It strengthens accountability.
How do you manage accountability when you can’t be sure people get the message? How can you hold someone to a standard when you can’t be sure they’re even aware of it?
Having direct, open conversations provides the opportunity to ensure understanding AND sets a verifiable point from which expectations can be set. On top of that, accountability and buy-in are natural complements.
3. It strengthens your relationship(s).
Do you really need me to tell you how being present with someone is better for how you relate to each other than managing through memos?
4. It strengthens your management skills.
While some may assume the ability to communicate well to be part of any manager’s skill set, that’s not always the case. As with any skill, communicating can be improved through intentional, mindful practice. Conversely, avoiding direct communication can weaken leadership skills.
Other skills are sharpened by having dialogue with colleagues and direct reports. Listening, observation, empathy and other emotional intelligence skills can (and should) be practiced in these conversations.
Most of all, your leadership ability is improved by being involved and engaged with the people you want to likewise be involved and engaged with your vision.