Our discussion will focus on how to enhance effective communication in the work place, specifically between the supervisor and the employee. We will look at common events, and how much of the communication process is in the hands of the employee. We will also discuss how communication not only comes in the form of the spoken or written word, and how much responsibility the supervisor holds to ensure positive and effective communication.
Effective Business Communication
Why is communication in business so important? The obvious comes to mind: if you cannot communicate, you cannot do business with others. However, communication is so much more in the workplace. We communicate in various forms. We speak, write, walk, make facial gestures, and many other subtle and not-so-subtle body language queues that communicate information to those around us in the workplace. In this discussion, we will examine how each of these can affect the communication between a worker and the supervisor, and how we can improve in our overall communication skills.
Marty Blalock of the University of Wisconsin writes, “The number one reason effective communication is important, is that ineffective communication is expensive.” As we think of this quote, we can understand the simple, yet powerful, truth to the words. How can we quantify the statement “ineffective communication is expensive” in relevant terms to the relationship between supervisors and employees? For starters, we see that a measurable cost of poor communication is less productivity by the employee. An employee who feels that he may be the last to have information may feel less valued than his peers may. The employee may feel like his supervisor does not respect him or many other negative assumptions.
Often overlooked is the reverse communication relationship between the employee and supervisor. A supervisor who has an employee with poor or ineffective communication ability may feel that the employee has no respect for him. The supervisor could easily believe that the employee does not value his place of employment or the position that he holds within the company. Poor employee to supervisor communication can also lead to higher tardiness, absenteeism and other detrimental results from lack of communication.
Let us start to examine the many facets of effective communication in the workplace. During this review think of the ways that you and your supervisors may have or not have had the same issues, and how would you now resolve the communication gaps that you may have experienced.
Workplace stress is commonplace in the twenty first century. Companies these days are trying to make more profit with leaner processes, and in most cases, leaner staffs. Supervisors are being asked to motivate employees to work harder to make up for the loss in labor, however they’re being asked to increase output. This type of stress can easily lead to poor communication.
A supervisor with a heavy workload must learn to delegate tasks and some authority to subordinates. This type of unspoken communication shows the employee he is valued and trusted. There are many forms of unspoken communication. Body language has been studied by governments, corporations, and even poker players to learn how to glean information from someone without ever asking them a word. Law enforcement officials use interrogation techniques designed to elicit involuntary body language responses to determine trustworthiness of the information being given. Supervisors and employees who are unaware of the impact of body language cues can subtly “say” something that was unintended.
Environmental variables also affect communication. When a supervisor speaks to an employee, the location and details of the discussion are sometimes as important as the topic of the conversation. For instance, asking an employee into your office as a supervisor may have a negative connotation to begin with. Upon entering the office, a setting of supervisor behind a desk and employee in front conveys an environment of authority and very businesslike demeanor. Conversely, having that same conversation in the office sitting side by side in seats or at a round table conveys more of a discussion aura. As long as the supervisor keeps some of these thoughts in mind when having a talk with an employee, the supervisor can control the conversation in most every way. A complete change in venue, say in the break room or at the employee’s workstation, allows the employee to feel equal in the conversation.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the obvious forms of communication between a supervisor and his employee. Volume, inflection, facial expression, and concurrent body language all set the combined tone of the conversation taking place. A supervisor or employee must take caution to ensure that the appropriate, overall message that is intended, is being received by the other. The same can be said for written communication. With the obvious proliferation of email, text messaging, and other written forms of communication, misunderstandings occur everyday. With the absence of volume, inflection and other cues, a person receiving the written message may not interpret the meaning or intent in the same manner as written.
Now that we’ve set a baseline for the many potential ways to miscommunicate, let’s take a look at how supervisors and employees can improve this art known as communication. Who’s responsible when a miscommunication between an employee and a supervisor occurs? The short answer is both. If someone becomes upset, then the intended message is blurred with the raw emotion of human nature. It is common in a company environment to find pockets of employees or supervisors who will promote a certain negative experience they’ve had, infecting others within the workgroup with the negative communication. When an employee or supervisor has had this type of experience, the best course of action is to meet again with the person and discuss the issue.
One of the techniques to better communication is to start with active listening. Paying attention to the speaker with eye contact, gestures of nodding of the head and similar physical responses to provide feedback that you are listening is a first step in avoiding miscommunication. Allowing the other person to say what they have in mind without interruption assures the listener of having all the facts before any conclusions or assumptions are reached. Included with active listening is taking ownership of the problem. Taking responsibility to solve the issue of miscommunication is paramount to ensuring the lines of communication are open and free of uncertainties.
Employees who feel like they have value will improve communication. When an employee feels empowered and understands his role, he will take personal pride in the job he does. Wanting to provide top quality work, the employee is more likely to ask questions, come up with new ideas, and promote better teamwork across workgroups. We’re also more likely to find these types of employees less likely to get caught up in corporate gossip or rumor mills and promoting more communication disconnect.
Another method to improve communication is for the supervisor to become a good observer. Take the time to see how an employee works and reacts when given criticism, and see how the employee reacts and works when given praise. Does the employee thrive under pressure, or do they wither?
Some of the points already mentioned in this paper are echoed in an article written by Tom Altmann of the Greywood Golf Course. Mr. Altmann expands on these thoughts to add the following points to the process: Be visible, make yourself easily found and approachable. Be a summarizer, take mental or physical notes, and summarize key points of the conversation. By utilizing this technique, you’ll demonstrate that you were paying attention.
The referenced article above goes on to discuss how one would deal with an angry employee. Learning how to reflect the anger shown is a first step in diffusing the situation. Making statements such as “I can see you’re really angry” and “I can see this situation has really upset you” shows that the supervisor really cares about the situation at hand. Once the person has calmed down, go to them and ask them how you could avoid having the situation in the future. One last point Mr. Altmann goes on to make is to remember not to take their anger personally. (Altmann 2002)
Some follow the theory of seven deadly sins of communication. Communication experts commonly reference these sins in corporate training sessions. The first of these sins is not connecting communication to employees. We call this the “what’s in it for me” factor. Sin number two is not thoroughly communication company related news to employees before alerting the news media. An example of this big mistake would be for a company representative to announce layoffs through a news report or newspaper article.
The third sin of communication is for a company to not keep tabs a manager’s communication skillset. Making the assumption that just because someone is a manager that they are automatically good communicators is a mistake that some companies make, and pay for with consistent communication lapses. Our fourth sin of communication is not matching your actions to your words. For a supervisor to say that something will take place and then for it not, causes mistrust and uncertainty with employees.
The fifth sin is for a supervisor to become a “mouthpiece” for management. To echo what the management has stated does not show the employee that a supervisor will stand up for their concerns. They will feel that their concerns are not adequately represented to upper management. The sixth sin of communication is not providing strategic business information to employees. If the general public were to become aware of a new product, a new acquisition or some other similar type of big information can impact the morale of the staff.
Our seventh and last deadly sin of communication is thinking employees are clueless. Assuming that employees won’t have information or that because they do not hold current high ranking positions in the company, they can’t possibly have ideas, solutions or answers that corporations are looking for.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the U.S. Office of Personnel management has written a newsletter in which she states that establishing a solid, working relationship between supervisors and employees takes time and effort. She also goes on to say that continuous feedback and coaching provides an opportunity for solid communication between a supervisor and employee, and should be kept to a simple format, and as an informal conversation when it’s not in the pretext of a formal review or personnel action.
Having employees participate in the process to set the parameters of performance assessments and reviews allows the employee to be better prepared to discuss issues and feel like a part of the process, Kanter says. Lastly, recognition should be done in an open and public way, while being tailored to the individual being recognized. Canned, impersonal recognition events are not effective. Employees want to feel special about achievements and want the recognition to be specific to their accomplishment.
One of the most common adages in human nature is “no news is good news” but in corporate communication, that statement could not be further from the truth. When no information is being shared between supervisors and employees, the rumor mill is running in full steam and causing the communication divide to expand. Employees will also look to the HR department to be the final authority in employee information. Having an executive committee, PR or communication staff and HR department all with a shared message shows the unified, single answer front that employees are looking for. All to often these diverse entities within a company can deliver opposing messages, confusing employees and supervisors. This is where the company starts to come into play in the supervisor-employee relations. If a supervisor cannot find the answers going through the channels and gives conflicting information to the employee, the gap in information then will propagate throughout the workforce. Employees share information amongst themselves, so if we start with the wrong information, it will quickly become more confused over time. Many times the HR department walks a tightrope between being an employee advocate, and being a consultant and good steward for the company.
To summarize, the communication between supervisors and employees is obviously critical. The supervisor has the responsibility to clearly communicate company goals, what the employee’s role in the company is, and on a more granular scale, what the day to day expectations of employee performance is. The supervisor is also expected to have all the answers and to be advocates for their employee to the company.
The employees are responsible for being better prepared and for proactively working with supervisors in times where questions arise. Gone are the times where an employee should sit in their cubicle at work and be able to say, “no one told me about that.” With the age of electronics at work, corporate intranets are rife with information and resources. Employees are also expected to have prepared for meetings, performance reviews, and informal conversations with others.
Altmann, T (1/1/2002). Communication for Superintendents. Grounds Maintenance Magazine,
Retrieved 2/3/07, from http://www.grounds-mag.com/mag/grounds_maintenance_communication_superintendents
Blalock, M. (12/23/2005). Why Good Communication is good business. Retrieved February 1, 2007, from University of Wisconsin Web site: http://www.bus.wisc.edu/update/winter05/business_communication.asp
Moss Kanter, Rosabeth (2001). Performance Management Competencies -Communication Skills. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from U.S. Office of Performance Management Web site: http://www.opm.gov/perform/articles/2001/spr01-3.asp
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