4 Key Ways to Improve Communication in Your Business
By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager
One definition of workplace communication is the technological system employees use to exchange information and ideas. While technology is an essential factor in efficient, effective business communication, the human role is more significant.
The basis of successful communication is how well people articulate and receive information, regardless of the tools they use.
Technological systems can be added, amended, and tailored to fit a company’s needs, making it much easier and faster to transmit information. That’s the good news. The bad news is that tech advances allow people who communicate poorly to do so with more speed and dexterity.
Improving workplace communication is much more complex and nuanced than enhancing technology. It involves changing patterns of behavior.
The Culture / Communication Connection
A company’s culture is defined by the conduct of the people who work there. It can be detected in their everyday attitudes and approaches to work, how they interact with coworkers, and how they represent the organization to the world.
Effective communication is at the root of most aspects of a robust company culture. The manner, tone, depth, and speed of information sharing play an enormous part in how well people connect and work.
However, it’s an area that organizations often take for granted. Instead of reinforcing communication skills through coaching and teaching, they’re left to chance. That kind of laissez-faire approach can generate a host of problems, and it’s a missed opportunity to significantly strengthen the workforce and the company.
Communication can be tricky even for small businesses where everyone is in the same location. As companies grow into larger quarters, add sites, and transition to more remote team members, the potential for dysfunctional communication grows.
What’s the solution? Prioritizing strong communication behaviors within an organization’s culture.
Leaders should identify which behaviors best facilitate positive interaction among their team members. Then they should consistently reinforce and help their staff practice these behaviors until they become habits.
4 Communication Behaviors Every Company Should Prioritize
The quality of communication can determine how well team members work together, individuals’ job satisfaction, and the overall success of an organization.
Four essential communication behaviors in a strong corporate culture are the ability to:
- Speak straight
- Get clear on expectations
- Share information
- Listen to understand
1. Speak Straight
Speaking straight is being direct, clear, and honest in our communication. In a healthy organizational culture, speaking straight is not only tolerated but expected and appreciated. There are several components of this critical behavior; being candid in a way that helps make progress is at its core.
As CultureWise Founder and CEO David Friedman points out,
“Speaking straight is not simply ‘dumping our bucket’ on others or being brutally honest without regard to how it is received. Rather, it’s being direct in a way that enables the other person to truly hear us and helps to solve problems.”
We can deliver honest messages in many ways—some can be helpful, and others might be destructive. The knack is taking responsibility for how messages are conveyed to get our point across effectively.
Speaking straight is not only saying things the right way but also being brave enough to speak up at all.
Why is it so hard to say what we mean and mean what we say? It’s not that most people struggle with being truthful; we’re often reluctant to be forthright because we’re afraid of the repercussions. But holding things back can be detrimental to how a workforce operates and relationships between team members.
If things are left unsaid, issues can fester, and problems are likely to expand.
When we fail to speak up, we’re protecting ourselves from discomfort. Leaders can help staff members overcome this by making it clear that the cultural environment is safe to voice opinions and ask questions. Employees should be taught that expressing their thoughts in the right way is critical to help the organization succeed.
Speaking straight is also about addressing issues directly with those who are involved or affected. When we work through intermediaries, misunderstandings are bound to happen.
Staff should be coached to work problems out directly with coworkers instead of telling their supervisor about the issue and expecting them to resolve things. It’s much quicker, and outcomes are likely to be better when people talk directly with each other.
Another important aspect of speaking straight is that it should be timely. Author and business social scientist Joseph Grenny’s observation about this was quoted in the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Get Your Employees to Speak Up”:
“Getting an early handle on minor issues before they become big problems is the key. You can approximate the effectiveness of the team — or even an entire organization — by measuring the average lag time between when problems are identified and when problems are brought out in the open.”
2. Get Clear on Expectations
Consider how you rate a situation’s outcome. Most likely, you measure it against what you expected to happen—not by what actually happened. If the result isn’t as favorable as what you thought it would be, you’re probably disappointed.
When our expectations depend on another person’s actions, things are even more complicated—and this is where communication comes into play. When you think you know how someone will handle a situation, it’s either because the person:
- Articulated the projected outcome to you, or
- Didn’t set clear expectations, and you made assumptions
In the first case, you know what to anticipate, and you can prepare accordingly.
But when expectations haven’t been established, both parties often have entirely different ideas of what will happen—and that never ends well. It’s not a good model for our personal lives, and in the workplace, unaligned expectations can cause significant internal and external problems.
Often, unclear expectations result from sloppy language that can be interpreted differently by the people involved. Phrases notorious for getting people’s wires crossed include:
- I’ll have it to you shortly
- It shouldn’t take too long
- They’ll send it as soon as possible
- I’ll do it the minute I have a chance
When you tell a customer, manager, or project partner you’ll honor a commitment soon; your intention may be to do it next week. Meanwhile, they may think “soon” means “immediately.” You are under the illusion that you are meeting their expectations, when in fact, you have dashed them.
Employees should be coached to avoid vague language and distinctly communicate what other people should expect to happen.
Beyond setting clear expectations, it’s also important to know when to request them. If a staff member isn’t sure about a task’s details or deadline, they should ask for guidelines.
Sometimes employees are reluctant to request more specificity for fear of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing. In other situations, they’re afraid that the other person’s expectations will be unrealistic. But as David Friedman points out,
“Even if we don’t ask the other person what their expectations are, they will still have them.”
It would be much better to ask what the other person assumes will happen. That gives both people the opportunity to reset expectations if needed and will prevent misunderstandings.
Ensuring that everyone is on the same page is a sign of professionalism. Leaders should make clearly communicated expectations a valued part of their company’s culture.
3. Share Information
How many times have you learned about something at work that, had you known it sooner, you would have saved time, effort, or frustration? The source of that late information could be a coworker who:
- Didn’t consider who else might benefit from sharing news or shared it ineffectively
- Purposely kept it to themselves to further their own or their department’s agenda
In each case, leaders should incorporate a different standard of behavior into the company culture.
Who Needs to Know?
When new information becomes available, management should coach staff members to ask themselves, “Who else might find this helpful?” The answer may range from no one to almost everyone in the organization, and the employee can then share as appropriate. They shouldn’t expect others to pass the information along, but do it themselves in the most effective way possible.
It usually doesn’t take much time to spread the word, but it does require a conscious effort.
Sometimes people sit on information because they feel protective of what they know. They may believe the knowledge gives them more power or will help their department stand out in the organization. Not only can this behavior be detrimental to others, people who hoard knowledge can also suffer the consequences.
Employees are often aware when coworkers aren’t sharing information, which can cause resentment or even retaliation. And being stingy with knowledge also means the person who doesn’t share loses opportunities for creative collaboration.
One of the most important effects of sharing information is that it helps build trust—and trust is a critical part of strong organizational culture.
To help achieve a strong level of trust, leadership should model and coach transparency. It’s also important to structure a system of acknowledgment that doesn’t reward individual achievement over group effort.
There should be no downside to sharing information within a company’s culture.
4. Listen to Understand
No matter how effectively information is transmitted, communication isn’t successful unless received and processed—not by technology, but by the human brain.
The goal of listening should be to fully grasp what the speaker is trying to convey—it is in everyone’s best interest. The speaker gets their message across and feels “heard,” and the listener can grow from the information they receive.
Despite the benefits, there are numerous reasons why we fail to listen well. David Friedman lists several key areas in his book, Fundamentally Different:
- Judgment: We try to determine whether we agree with the speaker while they are talking, which interferes with our ability to absorb what’s being said.
- Volleying: Instead of listening, we stop talking just long enough to give the other person a turn to speak. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about the next thing to say.
- Close-mindedness: We let the other person “have their say” when our minds are already locked into our point of view.
- Presumption: We think we know what the other person will say and tune out or even start finishing their sentences.
- Multi-tasking: We are checking our phones or other devices while people speak.
Friedman calls these bad habits “automatic listening.” But, he says, organizations can work on changing behaviors within their culture to promote effective listening. And the rewards are exponential.
“When we minimize our automatic listening, we’re able to hear things that would otherwise not get through multiple filters. This gives us a much broader view of situations and people, which in turn provides us with greater choices for how we approach almost everything.”
Active listening should anchor a company’s culture.
Communicate Better with CultureWise
This article’s insights are based on David Friedman’s approach to building and improving corporate culture. In his second book, Culture by design, he lays out an eight-step framework to create a high-performing culture based on exceptional behaviors like those outlined above.
The book stresses the importance of a communication-rich culture and includes advice for achieving one in the new remote work environment.
A free, two-chapter download of this valuable resource is currently available.
The book inspired the creation of CultureWise, a “turnkey operating system for culture.”
The groundbreaking program comes with a massive library of teaching content, expert advice and guidance, and a powerful mobile app to engage employees.
Stay up to date on the latest topics about company culture and business with a complimentary subscription to “Culture Matters,” a weekly newsletter published by CultureWise.