Communication in the workplace: Let’s fix this

Communication in the workplace

Communication in the workplace is a pretty messy deal. Line up 100 people from random companies and industries. Then ask ’em “What’s the worst thing about where you work?” I would guess the answers would be:

  • My direct boss
  • Communication in the workplace
  • My salary, “because I basically run this place”

(1) and (2) are logical. (3) is work martyr bullshit. And (4) is why pay transparency will never go anywhere so long as rich, white guys run the business world.

But let’s get back to communication in the workplace.

There are two major problems, IMHO. (Really there are dozens, but I’m trying to keep this simple.)

  • The caring aspect: Communication in the workplace drives everything — how can you know what to do if someone isn’t communicating it? — but it’s often viewed as a “soft skill.” In the crassest terms possible, a “soft skill” is something you don’t get a bonus on. As a result, many people ignore communication.
  • The strategy aspect: When consultants come in preaching better communication in the workplace, they normally argue for an Intranet, an e-mail blast, or some crap like that. You know how many employees read internal e-mail blasts? It’s not high. You know how many employees check the Intranet aside from viewing their time off? Very few. You have to communicate at the 1-on-1 level, not the “scale” level. Many people miss this.

Since communication in the workplace has been a tough issue for roughly 3,000 years or more, is there anything we can do? Let’s try.

Communication in the workplace: A six-tier approach (the good way)

Cool article from Northwestern here called “Six Tools For Communicating Complex Ideas.” In reality, a lot of business is digital paper-pushing — it’s not “complex ideas” — but the rub is that many people think what they do all day is strategic and complex, so this article still works. Want to know the six tools?

  • Data
  • Logic
  • Equations
  • Pictures
  • Stories
  • Participation

Big fan of this six-tier approach, especially stories — business storytelling is crucial right now — and participation. In every one of the 1,592,873 articles on Google about communication in the workplace, maybe six-seven mention “participation.” The very word “communication” implies a two-way street. You can’t have communication in the workplace if it’s just up to down. That’s command and control. It doesn’t work so well anymore, and your turnover will gag a horse.

OK. So these are the six things you should be focusing on for better communication in the workplace. Now let’s turn to how many managers would view this list.

Communication in the workplace: The bad side of the six-tier approach

This is based on managers I’ve had, my friends have had, and my family has had. Some managers are great and “get” all this. Many, however, are not. And when a manager is bad — which is apparently the case 8 in 10 times — they’re usually bad at communication above all else. Let’s break down the six:

  • Data: A manager is likely to rush around, bellow about headcount, claim the need for 4-5 data scientists, and overall just wait until his boss moves to a new topic.
  • Logic: LOL. Managerial logic died out sometime around the Pyramids being built. Managerial development these days is about who can set the biggest fire, then swoop in to resolve it, in order to please their boss.
  • Equations: Could you imagine going to a standard middle manager and saying “Hey, in your next pitch deck, I need to see some equations?” His head would explode on the spot, or he’d smash himself through a plate-glass window screaming about the millennial mindset. This is way over the head of most people who manage others.
  • Pictures: “You mean stock images? On it, boss!”
  • Stories: “Isn’t that a marketing thing? Let me ping Jason over here and see if he can help…”
  • Participation: “You want people to offer feedback on what I’m telling them? Gah…”

So what we’ve got is six logical ways to have better communication in the workplace — and six ways a typical manager would undercut them. You see a problem here?

Communication in the workplace: Let’s do two quick funny stories

Everyone who’s even worked for a single day at a company probably has some bad/funny “communication in the workplace” stories. I have about 7.3 million, but here we’ll only do two.

Data: I told this story in a post on business metrics, but here goes. I once sat in a meeting. There were two sides of people. One wanted “A” and one wanted “B.” (Doesn’t even matter what those letters represent.) The data was presented, and “A” was the clear option going forward. What did the “B” side do? Instantly — within seconds — they claimed “the data is wrong” and/or “Someone messed up.” That’s classic management. It’s basically management 101. “I didn’t get my way, so let me claim someone else lied and then find a scapegoat.” I feel like I just summarized getting a MBA in one sentence. Anyway. See the problem here? We can’t have better communication in the workplace if the first reaction is “No, that must be wrong.”


Pictures: I once sat in a presentation with 29 — count ’em all — stock images, including a smiling bi-racial family. People really need to be taught how to make better decks and pitches, you know?

How do we get better communication in the workplace?

The easiest way would be “promote empathetic, self-aware people to management.” Since that will never happen, we need a new plan. Here goes.

Style: Half of communication in the workplace — if not more — is about the style in which you deliver it. There’s some decent to good work on that from a former Google and Facebook executive.

Importance: You can’t bonus an executive off “You communicated well this quarter,” so the incentive system here is skewed. But poor communication usually leads to bad leadership, and that usually leads to money being left on the table — or money going out the door via turnover. Here’s some stuff on that idea. A traditional exec will never really care about communication in the workplace, but constantly tying it to money is a start.

Consistent and organic: Most major workplace technology — i.e. email, collaboration tools, etc. — really just allow lazy-as-all-hell managers to hide behind those tools instead of really talking to employees. That’s the essence of why we have bad communication in the workplace. It’s in pixel 1s and 0s form and not human-to-human form. Go talk to people and see where they’re at on projects. It’s not rocket science.

Blow up the performance review: That’s another thing bad, lazy managers hide behind — and it prevents effective feedback, which is the engine you get improvement from. If you blow up performance reviews, you’ll develop employees faster. Plus: the standard performance appraisal is barely accurate at predicting employee performance.

Let your team solve your problems: I’ve never understood this about work, right? Every manager has problems. They have stuff their boss is on their ass about. That manager then has a team. But so many managers think only they can work on the problems from above. That’s dumb. Why do you have a team, then? Bring your team together, explain what your boss is all over you about, and ask for solutions. That’s empowering. It’s also effective communication in the workplace.

Effective communication in the workplace and harsh feedback

This is an important final section. Here’s some new research from a Harvard professor. I won’t lay out the entire methodology here, but essentially, here’s what happened. She set up research around two groups. One gets harsh, critical feedback. One gets comforting, more positive feedback. Eventually, there’s a second task.

For the second task, there’s a 4-to-1 ratio of someone who got harsh feedback saying “Hey, can I have a new partner?”

The underlying idea is that we move away / distance ourselves from people who are consistently critical and harsh on us.

Now, this is a really tricky place in terms of work. An organization must be critical internally — because ideally you’re trying to push out the best product or service possible. But how critical? You can’t be fluffy, but you can’t be Stalin either.

The problem is: a lot of managers are terrified of being seen as “the friendly boss” and they go too far in the other direction. They become the “mean boss” because they think the “mean boss” gets the results. This is the pervasive problem with deifying Steve Jobs culturally.

In reality, the mean boss gets some results — yay! — but burns out and alienates his/her people — boo. There’s also never effective communication in the workplace with the harsh boss, because that dude is banging his fist and demanding results. No time to actually communicate! Read my mind, peon!

What else you got on effective communication in the workplace?

Ted Bauer

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