Most of us know intuitively that good communication is important in the workplace. After all, great communication removes obstacles that detract from efficiency and collaboration. But research underscores just how critical communication really is: when asked about failures in the workplace, a Salesforce study shows that 86% of respondents cited lack of collaboration or ineffective communication.
Managers lay a critical foundation for effective communication on their team. In fact, Gallup’s research shows that consistent manager-employee communication is closely connected to higher employee engagement. Managers set the tone by modeling good communication for their direct reports, and create the structure and processes that facilitate effective communication within in their team.
While it’s easy to say communication is essential, it’s not always easy to bring better communication to your team. What do you, as a manager, do when your team doesn’t interact well with one another? What about if you’re not interacting well with your team? You’re responsible for setting the tone in both cases.
What follows are a series of tips that any manager can leverage to improve team communication right away.
What is good communication?
Before diving into each tip, let’s establish what good communication looks like in this context. We define good communication as being effective both in the content of your communication and the coverage of your communication.
The content of your communication is both what you communicate and how you frame it. As a manager, you should be communicating with your direct reports about both short-term priorities and long-term development on professional and personal levels. You also need to present this information in such a way that your direct report understands and can easily take action.
Coverage of your communication is both who you’re communicating with and when, or on what cadence. A manager should have frequent and consistent communication with all of their direct reports. Coverage can manifest itself in one-on-one meetings, team-wide settings, or more informal interactions.
The following tips will help managers improve communication to and between their team members by giving them ways to improve both the content and the coverage of their communication.
Provide role clarity
One of the most effective structural ways to improve the content of communication on your team is to invest in role clarity. It helps everyone on the team know from the beginning which content is most relevant to discuss with different team members.
It’s important to remember that role clarity is not the same as a job description. A job description describes the “job” in a vacuum; it doesn’t provide any insight into the role this person is taking within a team. It’s difficult to have effective communication on your team when these fundamentals are not fully defined.
One of the simplest ways managers can promote role clarity is by explaining to each employee what metrics will be used to define success in their role. When individual contributors are clear on what is expected of them and those around them, organizations reduce friction and can hold team members accountable.
Role clarity also has the added benefit of happier team members. According to a study published in the Public Administration Review, “offices with a high level of role clarification had significantly higher levels of work satisfaction and lower rates of turnover.”
Use data whenever possible
Once your team’s roles are clearly defined, then use data- and evidence-driven conversations to create a culture of accountability.
When providing feedback (whether positive or constructive), managers using concrete examples of their direct report’s performance will have much clearer and more meaningful conversations. When discussing goals, managers who connect expectations to team- and organization-wide strategy help their team members understand how their contribution supports a bigger vision. That understanding is far more powerful than a report feeling like they should do something just because their manager told them to.
Consider the difference between these two team emails:
Which communication do you think would be more effective? Which one does your team come away from knowing exactly what is expected of them and what they need to do to be successful?
Incorporating data reduces friction and confusion, and empowers your direct reports to better evaluate their behavior and performance independently.
Embrace personal feedback
Managers should encourage their direct reports to give feedback of their performance as a supervisor — it’s the best way for you to get better. Soliciting, embracing, and acting upon the feedback you receive will improve communication and increase morale and output.
Be aware that your employees might not initially be open to giving you constructive feedback. “The major reason people don’t give the boss feedback is they’re worried that the boss will retaliate because they know that most of us have trouble accepting negative feedback,” says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. However, it is imperative that you try your best to solicit these comments because 75% of employees say that they would prefer to stay with a company that values their opinions and addresses concerns.
This kind of feedback is not a once-a-year exercise: it should be continuous and interactive — “Awesome, a way for me to be more effective! Here’s how I think I’ll incorporate what I’m hearing from you.” That mentality will increase the richness of your communication with every member of your team.
Develop a rhythm
Successful businesses develop internal operating rhythms. As Angus Patterson put it in How to create an operating rhythm to increase productivity:
“An operating rhythm is about ensuring that certain vital activities are performed in a consistent manner to a high degree of excellence both across a business and within the business. The key aim being to drive efficiency, effectiveness and therefore productivity.”
Managers should set internal operating rhythms to create a structured cadence for communication within their team. Your operating rhythm may include:
- Beginning of week team meetings
- Daily tactical check-ins
- Weekly 1:1s
- Monthly or quarterly team strategy sessions
Each of these touchpoints is an opportunity to clarify needs and expectations, create alignment and consistency, and ultimately promote productivity. Every touchpoint should have a clear objective so that it’s an effective use of time, and not just another meeting on the calendar.
Create a paper trail
You know you need to communicate with everyone on your team regularly, but how often are you actually tracking your performance against that goal? Creating a paper trail is one of the easiest ways to ensure that everyone is getting consistent, cadenced feedback.
When giving feedback, document exactly what the issue was and the suggestions for improvement that were given. Take notes during your 1:1 to ensure you follow through on commitments to your team. Paper trails, like Pathlight’s management platform, prevent employees from slipping through the cracks because managers don’t have to keep a mental list of conversations.
Paper trails have the added bonus of creating accountability, helping you stay sane, and creating independence, because your direct report can easily refer back to see what to work on. In performance situations, paper trails help HR do its job too.
Implement an open door policy
Having an open door policy is one of the most classic tools used to promote communication.
When a manager’s door is open, members of his or her team can provide or request feedback, ask for advice, or share concerns. This policy promotes a sense of transparency and openness between you and your team.
Effective open door policies don’t obliterate productivity. Instead of a casual open door policy — in which those squeaky-wheel employees are pestering you all the time and timid employees don’t want to disturb you — opt for setting specific office hours on your calendar. During those hours, commit to keeping your calendar open, listening attentively, and even consider prompting participation from everyone on the team by setting specific topics or asking reports to complete a quick survey.
Cultivate intra-team communication
When cultivating intra-team communication, it’s your job to make sure everyone is heard. This means making sure that those who are less likely to speak up are able to express themselves.
Did you know that studies show that women and people of color are more likely to be interrupted during a meeting than their counterparts? To address this challenge, a manager could implement a “no interruptions” rule for meetings to encourage equitable contributions.
Other dynamics will likely also be at play. For example, the millennial workforce prefers continuous, actionable feedback, while other generations may consider weekly team-wide discussions about how to improve less important. Being cognizant of the diverse needs of their teams helps managers create a better environment for intra-team communication.
Most importantly, practice what you preach
If you are really committed to improving team communication, one of the best and most effective ways to do it is to embody it yourself.
Employees are attuned to the actions of their supervisors and look to them as leaders of change. In fact, one 2013 study shows that only 26% of employees strongly agree that their managers actually live the values they expect from their employees. When you don’t practice what you preach, your team picks up on it.
Creating an environment where effective communication is the norm isn’t always easy, but it is an essential characteristic of high-performing teams. When your team is not communicating well, poor performance usually follows.
Managers who constantly seek to improve their team’s communication (and set the right tone themselves) create a happier working environment for their employees and deliver better business outcomes. Challenge yourself to incorporate these tactics into your team’s routine and set the standard for great communication in your organization.
Have you used any other strategies with your team that had a big impact? Or tried something that didn’t work out? Let us know!