When making team decisions or debating a new approach to providing your product or service, there will be disagreement. Everyone has their own experiences, biases, and their own rationale. Two intelligent people can disagree on a product launch strategy, for example. Failing to navigate difficult decisions can be deadly (to the business), so finding a way to keep the conversation moving forward in times of disagreement is a must. One of the most important things a manager can do is avoid miscommunication.
One way to avoid miscommunication is asking, “how did you arrive at that conclusion?” Understanding another person’s thought process will shed light on what data they are considering and the relative weights those data hold. It might reveal something you were missing. It might reveal that they are missing something. Either way, understanding how someone else uses information will keep the conversation moving. Additionally, having to explain your own thinking will ensure a deeper, more robust thought process. The best decisions do not necessarily come from the executives. By stepping back from the discussion and listening to how people are forming their conclusions, better ideas will emerge. Finally, understanding how information is being interpreted differently will show you how to persuade someone to your point of view (or convince you theirs is correct).
The long term value here is that people will have more room for their ideas to be considered. People want to be heard, they want to be valued and they want to have an impact. A business that solely listens to one executive all the time is sure to lose people who feel they aren’t able to contribute. Getting more people involved in large decisions will help retain them, which keeps more institutional knowledge in close proximity, which helps the company survive long term.
Communication, not really something engineers like myself are well known for, is an area most businesses can improve on. We’ve never had more ways of communicating – email, Slack, Microsoft Teams, in person, social media, video calls, texting and memes – yet communication remains a challenge in most businesses. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time should be pretty straightforward with all the sources we have at our fingertips. However, hiccups still occur with files being lost, threads getting too long to sort through, information coming in from different channels causing organizational issues, and the fact that tone does not translate well in written communication. A communication standard in your business can do wonders for the long term health of the business. Let’s look at some ways to do just that.
Defining internal norms surrounding communication is a must. If some people are texting, some are messaging, and some are emailing, files and memos will get lost or missed. Have a plan for what is being used and in what context. When information that does not require immediate action is shared, instilling a norm of responding with some variation of “message received” lets the sender know you’ve seen the message. It also shifts responsibility onto the receiving party for knowing the new information.
Working in a busy kitchen, for example, you hear cooks say, “heard” all the time as new information comes in. A server might tell one cook that an upcoming to-go order is no longer needed, which the cook will repeat. The rest of the staff responds with “heard” to acknowledge the fact that they will no longer need to work that ticket. Another example; when marketing tells everyone that the new campaign is launching on the 19th instead of the 15th, responding with “message noted” or some similar sentiment lets marketing know their message has been delivered. It also puts the responsibility on the receiving parties for using the new info when relevant. In the meeting on the 18th when someone asks how the launch went, everyone should know that there has been no launch yet- the date moved. Acknowledging new information is key to moving quickly, together, in a rapidly moving environment.
Don’t use more channels to communicate through than is necessary. Files should be sent in a traceable format so when something is inevitably lost, a single source can be used to trace its location. Having to check three channels to find a file is clumsy and slow.
Encourage people to respond with their thoughts by using phrases like, “Here is my plan. Assuming this is acceptable, I’ll move forward with this plan tomorrow. If there are concerns, please let me know.” If you receive no response, you’re good to go. If someone has an issue, it’s their responsibility to speak up. Another example – when screen sharing on video conferences, telling the audience, “I’m assuming you’re looking at my screen now, let me know if that’s not true” keeps you in flow and forces others to speak up if there is a technical issue. (Instead of pausing to say, “can you all see my screen?” and waiting for one brave soul to speak up)
If your business has a “contact us” page, respond to it (or you risk creating a bad customer experience). Many contact forms send messages into a black hole that garner no response, which is disheartening. For proof, try it out. Find a dozen random companies, send them a genuine question via their website and count how many respond. The point being, if your business has a contact page with a form to send a message, respond to it. Ignoring potential customers will turn folks off from spending money at your company. If there are common requests or questions, add that info to an FAQ section.
Aim to match the tone of the person writing to your business. A person reaching out using exclamation points and colorful language likely has a lot of enthusiasm towards your business (or anger- you’ll know the difference). Match that level of enthusiasm in the response. If a customer appears to be excited, be excited in the response. If they appear to be angry, be empathetic and measured in your response.
Simplify the language used in external communication, including on your website. Too many landing pages have strange, technical jargon that means nothing to most viewers of the website. No one should leave your website confused as to what your business offers. The technical jargon can come later. Part of creating a great customer journey is making customers feel good along the way. If they don’t understand what you’re offering based on the landing page content, they likely won’t become a paid user. Keep it simple. This goes for contract negotiations as well. Too many deals fall through the cracks because the legalese in contracts is too confusing, causing people to say no. Partnerships, sales contracts, memberships, etc. should be done on simple to understand terms that have an easy out for either party. The more cumbersome it is to get out of a deal, the less valuable your service becomes. Bad word of mouth will cause significant problems for the longevity of your business.
Feedback should go in all directions. The idea that only a manager can provide feedback to an employee is antiquated. Meaning, employees at the same level can give each other feedback, employees can give feedback to superiors, and superiors can give feedback to their team. Honest feedback is the secret to growing as a person and as an organization. The way messages are delivered can have a material impact on their effectiveness, though. A few rules for a good feedback system;
- Ask before delivering: prior to dumping your thoughts onto someone’s lap, ask them if now is a good time for feedback. If the answer is yes, then deliver the message. When the answer is no, write down anything you feel is important to say, and find a time to chat. Being emotionally ready to handle criticism makes the message much more likely to be heard and understood. No one likes to be kicked when they’re down, so setting aside a time to deliver critical feedback allows recipients to prepare emotionally.
- Create a thank you rule: when receiving feedback, make it a point to only respond with thank you. Making excuses for a certain behavior is going to cause tension where it’s unnecessary. Say thank you when you receive feedback, and process the message before responding off the cuff. After processing, if you really think there is something to discuss, set aside a time for it. Clarifying questions are okay, but to avoid damage caused by off the cuff, mean remarks, limit responses to “thank you.” It will go a long way.
- Criticize privately: have you ever seen a manager chastise someone publicly for a particular action? It’s uncomfortable for everyone. Simple phrases like, “let’s talk later” or “I’m not sure I agree, but we can revisit this later” can be used to note there is feedback coming, but saves the emotional torture of being humiliated in front of coworkers.
- Praise publicly: As a manager, making your team look good makes you look good. Department wide emails that praise someone for a job well done can go a long way in building morale. Acknowledgment in a meeting for a certain initiative, an above expectations performance, or other good things makes people feel seen and valued. Note, it’s important to know your audience here- if someone does not like public recognition, this can backfire.
One of the biggest sources of waste in email communication is when someone fails to respond to all questions, forcing the originator to ask again. If your business uses email (or other written mediums) frequently, everyone should understand that the normal operating procedure is to respond to all prompts and questions in one email. Getting into the habit of this will save countless back and forth emails where people have to ask the same thing multiple times.
Defined communication standards become increasingly important as a company scales. Once a team gets beyond 25-30 employees, the number of potential communication channels gets too large to rely on water-cooler type conversations to keep everyone in the loop.