Almost everyone can relate to the Email In Real Life video (if you aren’t one of the almost four million people who have watched it, go ahead. I’ll wait). Sadly though, there’s too much truth to it. Even worse, for many people, email is the main tool used to communicate at work.
We need regular, effective communication in work today, particularly given the rapid amount of change we face. Our “annual objectives” might need adjusting by March if an unexpected startup becomes successful overnight. If teams aren’t aligned on priorities or aren’t aware of changes, they will struggle to achieve meaningful results.
If wires get crossed when communicating ownership of tasks or timelines, it will breed frustration in the team members who are forced to pick up the slack. It becomes the “he said/she didn’t say” telephone game from childhood, with garbled messaging and frustration as a result.
The word communication is quite difficult to pin down in the context of the workplace. Does it mean best practices around sending emails or using Slack channels? Or is it about clearly describing responsibilities? Does ‘communication’ mean being in constant contact, or devoting a few minutes of each meeting to personal chit chat? For some teams, communication will mean robust and frequent collaboration, while for others, it will mean establishing clear protocols around project ownership to make sure tasks don’t fall through the cracks.
Let me share a recent example of communication gone awry. As part of our objectives, a priority for Actionable is collecting success stories to share with our community. The Regional Directors and Integration Coaches at Actionable are hungry for sales tools that demonstrate our value and describe our successes. Team members were sharing stories in our Slack channels, to great support and appreciation from the team, but with no clear next steps for follow up.
At our recent staff retreat, we addressed the communication breakdown, and devised a solution. As Managing Editor, I am the natural center for this project, so I’ve taken ownership. When a story is shared, it’s now clearly established that I will pick it up (tagging in my colleagues as necessary), and claim responsibility for next steps. Like so many projects at Actionable, it will take the efforts and insights of the whole team to create something truly great. However, the first step was to identify the gap in communication, create a bridge, and articulate clear next steps.
This is just one, close-to-my-heart, example. It’s worth taking a few minutes to reflect on your definition of communication for your team.
When leaders site communication issues as a problem for their teams, it’s almost always related to a breakdown in the building blocks of good relationships. As a first step, it’s worthwhile to check the temperature on the other levels of the Engaged Employee Pyramid.
Have you established a strong foundation of role and culture fit? Are team members empowered to manage themselves? Do team members trust and respect each other? Often, what appears to be a communication issue is really a problem with one of the other levels.
If you are leading a team, and feel that communication isn’t strong, dig into the problem by asking yourself the following questions:
- How does communication actually happen in your workplace?
- When does communication break down?
- Who is involved? How long have they worked together?
- What is the project they are working on?
- Is it a messaging problem, or a process problem (or both)?
Asking these questions will help you get to the source of the problem. A disconnect in how people understand their roles, how responsibilities across the team are aligned, or how their work fits into the overall priorities of the organization, often manifests as a communication issue.
At the staff retreat, I was able to clarify further how my role fits into the overall objectives of the organization, to get a clearer sense of my colleagues’ priorities and timelines, and figure out some key insights into how other members of the team operate. We came together to solve the “communication” breakdown, which really turned out to be a role and culture fit/team issue.
As the Email in Real Life Video demonstrates (I also quite like the Conference Call in Real Life video), communication breakdowns breed justifiable frustration. Articulating best practices for communicating with your team (e.g. clear protocols around using “reply all” in emails, using Slack channels instead of private messages, and prioritizing weekly meetings) is a great place to start.
Effective communication strategies are crucial, but I’d also urge you to think deeply about what effective communication looks like for your team. Every group will have different ideas and goals. Use the concept of communication as a lens through which you view other aspects of your organization. Where are you experiencing breakdowns, and what next steps can you take to move past them?