Improving Communication with Your Team

Last Updated Jul 3, 2007 3:59 PM EDT

When managing a team, good communication skills are vital. In fact, good communication is central to most of the important functions a manager performs—monitoring progress, receiving early warning of problems, promoting co-operation, encouraging team involvement. Phrases such as "due to a lack of communication," or "a breakdown in communication," or similar are too often used to describe the cause of a major problem or issue. Communication is central to the way humans work, and because it comes naturally, we do not spend enough time thinking about how to do it properly.

There are some helpful ideas and rules to keep in mind in order to communicate more effectively within a project environment. It is also useful to consider ways in which communication can go wrong, so as to avoid common pitfalls.

What You Need to KnowAs a relatively new manager, I am experiencing some difficulty communicating with my team. How can I improve this?

The good news is that you are already on your way to resolving this problem. The first step toward becoming an effective communicator is to take responsibility, which is exactly what you are doing. This can be one of the hardest tasks to accept.

Good communication is about personal responsibility—your message can only be understood properly if you, as the communicator, take full responsibility for how it is styled and structured. In other words, if people misunderstand your message or react badly to it, it is not usually their fault. They are not necessarily trying to be difficult or obstinate—it may be that you did not find the right way of conveying the message.

The best way to improve your communication with a new team is to experiment with different communication styles and approaches. Eventually you will realize that you are starting to get the intended response. Once you have fully grasped how different approaches yield various results, significant improvements in team morale and mutual understanding can result.

What to DoRecognize Differences in Comprehension

One essential requirement of working well with a team is clear communication. It is also important to recognize that different people absorb and comprehend information in different ways. So, when communicating with a group of people, it is important to do so in a manner that gets through to as many people as possible.

Research into learning styles during the 1970s established that people fall into four main categories:

  • "Why?" people want all the reasons for doing something.
  • "What?" people want all the facts about it.
  • "How?" people want only the information they need to get it done.
  • "What if?" people are more interested in the consequences of doing it.

It was also found that if someone in any of these categories does not receive the type of information they naturally prefer, they tend to switch off. Because the audience for any given presentation, information piece, team talk, or other method of communication likely contains a mix of all of these types of people, the information has a much better chance of being heard and absorbed by everyone if it contains all four elements.

It is also worth remembering a very useful concept known as the "three-times convincer." This is based on research showing that 80 percent of people need to hear a message three times before they buy into it, 15 percent need to hear it five times, and five percent up to 25 times. Thus, key messages should be restated at least three times, preferably in different ways. It is best to spread these repetitions over an appropriate time.

Consider Various Communication Forms

There are three primary forms of communication:

  • Verbal communication. The majority of human beings' communication is done verbally, with many advantages—it is fast, easy, and natural, for example. The disadvantage is that the words "disappear" once spoken and conversations are often remembered differently by different participants—if at all. If one is not careful in using it, the spoken word is most likely to create trouble.
  • Non-verbal communication. Body language and other types of non-verbal communication are valuable ways of reinforcing a message. When committed to a message, the passion and enthusiasm that is naturally communicated with gestures and demeanor make what is being said all the more compelling. Non-verbal communication usually accompanies the verbal, and is a valuable way of enriching a message. However, non-verbal communication can also contradict the words being spoken, perhaps giving away true feelings. Thus, it is important to learn awareness of non-verbal communication, and to control it, in order to leverage its full power.
  • Written communication. This form of communication is much more permanent and, for many, carries a lot more weight. Written communication can have the advantage of being independent of individual memories or personal biases. If it is badly phrased, however, written communication can still be ambiguous and subject to misinterpretation.

While email, text messaging, and instant messaging are used widely for informal communications, the bulk of informal communication is typically verbal and, except on the telephone, includes body language. In contrast, formal communication contains a greater proportion of written material, often because people need to keep records. In formal communication, it is good practice to follow up a verbal exchange with written confirmation of what was said.

Consider Available Communication Channels

The three basic forms of communication can be combined into a myriad of degrees and applications. These can be further extended almost infinitely by the choice of communication channels available to pass a message along. As a team leader, here are just some of the available communication channels in the workplace:

  • newsletters
  • memos
  • contracts
  • team meetings
  • presentations
  • progress reports
  • telephone conversations
  • faxes
  • e-mail
  • letters
  • drawings
  • one-on-one meetings
  • specifications
  • training courses
  • video conferencing
  • web pages, blogs, etc.

Each of these contains one or more of the three primary communication forms in different combinations. Some are more appropriate to formal communications, and others to informal ones, but most can be adapted to suit specific circumstances.

Distinguish Active vs. Passive Channels

One common problem in today's workplace is information overload—there is so much available data, documentation, opinion, and other material that people need to absorb, they do not know where to start. A good way of alleviating information overload is to draw a distinction between "active" and "passive" channels of communication. Active channels are those which demand someone's immediate attention—such as a meeting, or the telephone. Passive channels are those that are available when needed, or given attention when desired—a newsletter, for example.

Use active channels for communication that requires action, and passive channels for material that is "for information only." It is sometimes beneficial to use an active channel to draw attention to a passive channel—for example, suggesting in a company meeting that everyone look at the latest newsletter.

Consider Proper Meeting Formats

Meetings are one of the most common—and useful—forms of communication in any team. This is because a meeting can address almost any likely situation, and will fit both formal and informal occasions. Some of the more common meeting formats are discussed below:

  • One-on-ones. Normally held weekly, these informal meetings between the team leader and each individual team member are ideal for motivating people, catching up on progress, and ensuring that any problems are identified and dealt with promptly.
  • Full team meetings. These are held regularly (perhaps monthly, or alternatively, every 1 or 2 weeks) so that all team members are updated on each area or task. Team meetings are useful for identifying and addressing gaps or slippage in schedules, and for ensuring that all parts of the "big picture" come together.
  • Presentations. More formal affairs, presentations are often held to impart messages to key stakeholders—such as the users, project sponsor, or shareholders—to keep them informed and to maintain buy-in.
Keep Meetings Productive

While meetings of various formats can serve many critical functions in the workplace, they can also become a huge threat to productivity. Meetings are useful if they are held only when necessary and are run properly. When that is not the case, meetings can be a complete waste of time and resources. Review the list of "golden rules" for meetings below. Not every item will apply to every meeting, but as a group they comprise useful general guidelines:

  • Ensure that the meeting is necessary, and objectives have been properly set.
  • Make certain that all contributors know what is required of them, then develop and circulate an agenda in advance so that all attendees can prepare.
  • Start on time—waiting for latecomers only rewards their poor punctuality.
  • Deal with one agenda item at a time, but be flexible about order when helpful or necessary.
  • Encourage all participants to contribute—avoid taking silence as implied agreement, and do not allow one person to dominate the discussion.
  • Do not tolerate people holding discussions between themselves, or interruption of the speaker, during the meeting.
  • After discussion, test for the readiness to make a decision; when a decision is made, verify commitment to it.
  • Assign actions and agree on deadlines.
  • Summarize the decisions and actions when concluding the meeting.
  • Agree on the time and place of the next meeting, if necessary, and conclude as close to the planned time as possible.
Recognize Barriers to Communication

Communications in the workplace generally have a number of barriers to overcome, in the course of which messages may get filtered, re-interpreted, or diluted. Recognizing these barriers, as well as their potential effects, is important to deciding when communications need to be followed up, reiterated, or reinforced in some way.

Barriers to communication divide roughly into four main categories—environmental, background, personal, and organizational.

  • Environmental barriers. These include factors such as noise, temperature, air quality, location, and the immediate surroundings (cramped/spacious, tidy/messy, etc.). Each of these has an effect not only on a person's ability to communicate or listen, but also on their enthusiasm and motivation. Try to be sensitive to people's reactions and, if environmental factors are having an adverse effect, do something to remedy the problem.
  • Background barriers. Everyone encodes their thoughts and interprets other people's meaning based on their own cultural, social, and educational backgrounds. Among a diverse group of people, this can cause all sorts of problems. A very common instance is jargon—every organization has its own, and it is easy to forget that outsiders might not understand, or may perceive an unintended meaning. Similarly, team members from different cultural backgrounds are likely to experience this type of barrier. Background barriers can be difficult hurdles to clear, but make every attempt to ensure that all team members are clear about what is intended by a particular message.
  • Personal barriers. Fatigue, hunger, thirst, and other temporary conditions comprise personal barriers to communication, as do personal prejudices and circumstances. Again, these can be difficult to overcome, but try to be aware of them. For instance, if someone arrives late for an appointment and is looking harried, it is probably not a good time to request that they take on some extra responsibilities or meet a tighter deadline. That message is not likely to be well-received, or even considered.
  • Organizational barriers. Rank and status are the obvious examples of an organizational communications barrier. A person who is your senior stakeholder will react differently to you than a recently recruited junior staff member, for example. Again, maintaining awareness of these potential barriers can help to frame communication appropriately, and maximize the chance of getting through.
What to AvoidYou Choose an Inappropriate Form of Communication

Consider the appropriate form of communication for the objective or task at hand. For instance, a casual chat with your boss about an interesting idea is not a proper basis on which to kick off a new project. In this case, a formal project specification that has been reviewed and agreed upon by all parties is required.

Asking a co-worker in an apparently friendly way "Do you happen to have a couple minutes?" while looming over their desk with folded arms and furrowed brow will send the message that this is an order, not an invitation. Take care to use different communication forms appropriately, according to the formality of a situation, and set boundaries or create an atmosphere that supports the communication objective.

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