A quick Google search on what do employees complain about shows that communication crops up in most top 10s. An Inc article on how to make sure your employees never complain about you as a boss puts clearly communicating performance expectations at number 1. Another top 10 puts communication problems above not paid enough, job insecurity and a bad boss. A You Gov poll said that 94% of managers believe they are good listeners; only 65% of their staff agreed.
I remember when I worked at a largish charity a few years ago, we did a quality audit, using the EFQM model, and one of the key areas where we fell short was on communication. My particular grievance was that I felt left out of too many conversations, I didn’t know everything that was going on. While this might well be a personality fault – perhaps I’m too nosey – but I felt that as a fundraiser, I needed to have a good understanding of what was going on across the organisation. I hated finding out that someone else was doing a funding bid and I didn’t know it was going on, or needed funding urgently for a project, but then I couldn’t get the information I needed to apply for appropriate funding.
At the same time, we had lots of meetings. I attended lots of meetings, even without the ones I complained about not being involved in. And then I hated sitting there listening to people talking at length about the problems they were having, or some meeting they’d had and had to give us a blow by blow account of who said what to whom. Just give me the headlines, dammit!
Of course, with hindsight, I can see that the organisation had good intent, but just needed to get smarter about how it shared information. Peter Drucker, in his seminal book Managing Oneself, describes people as readers or listeners. Some people like to read for information, others like to be told it, to get an oral report. I realise now that, whilst I love to talk, and developing my skills as a listener, I get too bored if I have to listen too long to something, especially if I’m not involved. Conversation – I love a good conversation, but meetings aren’t about conversation. Give me a written report that contains the information I need, please. Meetings should have a specific agenda, good discipline about sticking to it, but most of all be necessary to meet a defined purpose. There are other, more effective, ways to share information
Another complaint often heard about communication at work is too many emails. Some organisations have a tendency to send long emails, cc ing in anyone they think needs to be kept informed. One charity worker I spoke to said the bane of her life was long emails, where she had to spend ages reading through to check if there was anything she needed to know or needed to do, buried somewhere in the missive. Often there wasn’t. But sometimes there was, so she still had to read them. And another manager complained that people sent him an email to ask a question, rather than get up, walk to another desk, ask him the question, sort it out straight away. On the other hand, if you have a culture of always open, you’ll be constantly interrupted, so this can have its drawbacks too.
One of the most crucial, and underrated, communication skills is listening. 94% of managers believe they are good listeners. But only 65% of staff say their managers are good listeners. So it sounds as though a significant proportion of managers are deluding themselves. The You Gov poll asked what is the biggest mistake leaders make when working with others? 41% said inappropriate communication or poor listening. When asked to choose the top five from a list of potential missteps by leaders, 81% chose failing to listen or involve others.
Why is it important? If we go back to my experience of feeling left out, as well as paradoxically hating to waste time in meetings, this taps into some fundamental feelings about work. My sense of belonging, how engaged was I with the purpose of the organisation and my role in it, was I clear on what was expected of me? Was my contribution valued? With hindsight, I accept that it was, this organisation had so much good intent, but there were some things it could have done better. As well as communication, several staff complained that they didn’t feel appreciated. If they had communicated this better, motivation and morale would have been way higher.
It’s not easy, but the rewards are worth it. Sometimes, your staff won’t know what they need, like me simultaneously complaining about not being involved in meetings, and going to meetings that are a waste of time. Back then, if someone had taken the time to work out what my actual complaint was, and consider my preferred style of communication, the problem could have been resolved. However, throw in that other team members will have differing needs, and you see how complex this can get.
Here are five techniques that work, one of them, or a combination, may be right for you.
Whether you can improve your communication with a simple fix will depend on what your workplace culture is like at present. If you have generally good leaders and managers who are willing to work on their skills, then a few changes can make all the difference. However, if there are wider problems and the other Pam Cast principles are not an integral part of your culture, then the techniques above will be like putting a sticking plaster over a wound that needs stitches. If you’re afraid this is you, take the questionnaire now and see what your strengths and weaknesses are.[WPMKTENGINECTA id=”20c4f399329e401380″ align=”center” hastime=”false”]
 Murray, K 2017 People with purpose, Kogan Page, London p 186
Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.