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Workplace Communication: Improving Poor Communication Skills

You might be surprised to learn the causes of a potential breakdown in communication at work.

Often, managers assume the culprit is a lack of technical or hard skills. They invest a lot of time and money in training on those functional/technical skills. Or they invest in new tools to enhance the technical skills or bring in people with stronger technical skills, only to be disappointed when these problems persist.

The real issue may be that there's a harmful lack of communication skills in the workplace.

10 Signs of a Lack of Communication Skills in Your Workplace

Is your team suffering from a lack of communication skills in the workplace? These 10 signs of a communications breakdown may help you diagnose the problem:

  1. Productivity declines
  2. Quality of work declines; errors increase
  3. Little or no initiative is shown
  4. Complaints increase and there is a lot of negativity
  5. Cooperation is limited; there is a lot of conflict or resistance
  6. Finger-pointing is more common than taking accountability
  7. Higher rates of absenteeism & tardiness; excessive breaks
  8. Customer satisfaction rates are lower
  9. People avoid tough assignments and challenges
  10. Few speak up at meetings; interactions are avoided  

Getting to the root cause right away is a faster and better way to solve these problems than improving the technical/functional ability of the team. At the very same time, if you address the real problem you’ll boost employee engagement and enjoy the cascade of benefits that come with higher levels of engagement. We’ve covered those extensively in this CONNECT2Lead series, so go back and read the earlier posts if you need a refresher!

Let’s make the links to show how these 10 problems stem from poor communication. Mostly, this falls on the shoulders of managers.

Graphic Showing Eye to Eye ConversationProblems Related to not Setting Clear Expectations

All 10 of these problems could have a root cause of employees not fully understanding what’s expected of them. One of the most important jobs for any manager is to be clear and complete in conveying what others are expected to do. That’s more than the final output or results. What are they supposed to do? What activities? How? When?

It starts with the job description. And if the job changes, the job description should change, too. Take a look at the jobs you hire for. The job description should spell out what people do day-to-day and how they go about doing it. Instead of “completes monthly reports,” it should say “gathers data from department heads each week and resolves discrepancies to balance monthly reports.”

Once hired, and on an ongoing basis, the three things people need to know are WHAT to do, HOW MUCH to do, and HOW to do it. Additionally, you need to tell people WHY each of those matter.

Use this series of questions to check how well you’ve set expectations for someone on your team.

  1. What is a job duty you’ve assigned to someone?
  2. Why does it matter that this work get done?
  3. How much of this work needs to get done in a typical day? Week? Month?
  4. Why do you need those quantities?
  5. What are the details about how you want this work to be done?
  6. Why is it important for the employee to do the work in this way?
  7. How much of what you just answered does that employee know and fully understand?

Were you immediately able to answer each question? If you don’t know the answers, you can’t expect anyone else to know them! And if you do know the answers, have you clearly, directly and recently communicated this information -- ALL of this information -- to the person you’re expecting to do the work?

If they don’t understand expectations and the rationale for them, it’s only natural that productivity and quality might be compromised. It would be only natural to see:

  • Lack of initiative
  • Negativity and conflict
  • Low levels of accountability and engagement
  • Poor customer satisfaction

You might be able to rectify all these issues by communicating more effectively about expectations!

Problems Related to Low Employee Engagement & Morale

There is some crossover here. Setting clear expectations will, by itself, boost engagement. It will also improve employee retention.

Take a look at the top four reasons people seek other employment:

  1. “Without expectations and guidance, I do not have a sense of what it takes to be successful. I’m not sure what my manager wants or how to go about delivering.”
  2. “My manager does not provide consistent and clear expectations.”
  3. “My manager has not shown me clear ways to enhance my earning potential and career development.”
  4. “My manager does not provide regular feedback or coaching about my work performance.”

According to Gallup, all four of these reasons are more frequently cited than the need to earn more money. Setting and communicating expectations are deeply embedded in all of these.

Additionally, you can boost engagement and morale by communicating effectively with employees. Among the leadership behaviors that are proven to significantly impact engagement levels:

  • Spends time and energy making certain that team members adhere to the principles and standards agreed upon
  • Speaks with genuine conviction about the higher meaning and purpose of the work
  • Asks, “What can we learn?” when things don’t go as expected
  • Actively listens for diverse points of view
  • Praises people for a job well done

These are just some of the behaviors from the evidence-based leadership framework known as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, a body of work by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. You can complete an assessment or attend a workshop that provides insights about the frequency of your leadership behaviors and what you can do to improve your leadership effectiveness.  

You’ll notice that this all comes down to simple behavioral choices about how you communicate and how frequently you communicate. Managers with strong communication skills have teams that are happier and more productive.

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Problems Related to not Seeking Everyone’s Input

Most of these communication breakdowns stem from a manager not providing critical information that’s complete and continuous. But there’s another aspect that more often gets overlooked. It’s about managers hearing what others have to say.

When people feel they’ve been heard, they are more committed to the work. They buy in more to the decisions made. They adapt to change faster. Even when their ideas or input are not used, people who feel heard are more accepting of a manager’s directives.

When people do not feel heard, they withdraw. They feel marginalized. They may “go through the motions” in doing their work, but they’re not applying the additional discretionary effort that comes with higher levels of emotional connection.

Not feeling heard causes people to clam up in future meetings. Marginalized people:

  • Call in sick more often
  • Produce less in a work shift
  • Complain more about their work
  • Avoid taking on challenges

Are You Sending Mixed Messages?

Using your communication skills will also address the most common reasons that people underperform. But only if you are clear and not sending any mixed messages! Here’s what you’ll need to evaluate to be sure you’re avoiding mixed messages.

First, know the primary reasons that employees underperform:

  • They don’t know what to do or how much you expect them to do.
  • They don’t know how to do it or how to do more of it.
  • They think they’re doing it and that they’re doing it right.
  • They think their way is better than your way of doing it. Is it?
  • There are no negative consequences for underperforming.
  • There are obstacles limiting their performance.
  • They don’t understand the purpose of doing an assigned task.
  • They fear a negative consequence for doing what’s been asked of them.
  • They think something else is more important.
  • They don’t like the work and don’t want to do it.

Setting expectations properly and checking in frequently will address a number of these issues. But you’ll also need to be careful not to accidentally send mixed messages that cause these issues.

Are You Aligned?

Second, make sure all your messages AND your actions are aligned. Here are some examples of ways you might not be aligned… ways you are sending mixed messages without realizing it.

  1. A manager praises working fast and getting a high level of production. He offers bonuses to team members for exceeding their quota on the line. So people work faster and try hard to increase output ... and they’re really surprised and upset when the manager comes back to them with complaints about quality.

  2. A manager tells someone to do something but doesn’t provide a deadline or any context. The employee adds it to the bottom of her “to-do” list and proceeds with the routine tasks of the day. When the manager asks for the work product a few hours later, the employee is surprised to learn that this was intended to be a top priority.

  3. A manager asks employees to use a new process that’s intended to improve work flow. The process requires employees to get the manager’s signature on a new form, but the manager is only in each regional office twice a week. This slows down rather than speeds up flow, leaving employees confused and frustrated.

  4. Employees are told to adopt a new system. Doing so will be disruptive to work output and uncomfortable because it represents a significant change. Employees don’t understand why this new system has been introduced. Further, there’s no consequence for maintaining the status quo (which is easier and more comfortable for them). No change occurs.

  5. A manager provides a monthly “punch list” of projects for a team. Month after month, one task seems to carry over. The manager ends up doing it herself most months. When asked, employees admit that they don’t like the task and don’t feel competent in completing it.

Getting to the root cause, setting expectations, and making sure you aren’t sending mixed messages will improve team performance.

All of this requires excellent communication.

When the Root of the Problem Is Neglecting Quality Communication

Since communication involves both sending messages and receiving messages, both parties have certain responsibilities for effective communication. We’ll address both, but first let’s step back and review what’s really happening when we communicate.

Communication is defined as the process of transmitting information and a common understanding from one person to another. The key word there is common. It signifies that both the sender and the receiver understand the information that’s been transmitted in the same way.

This is the heart of communication. In fact, the word itself -- communication -- is derived from the Latin word communis which means common. Without common understanding, there is no communication.

In any communication, there are two parties: The sender, who initiates the communication, and The receiver, to whom the message is sent.

It begins when the sender encodes an idea by selecting words, gestures, symbols or expressions to convey an idea. This applies to all verbal, nonverbal and written language.

It continues as the receiver decodes the message into meaningful information.

The way the information is transmitted is known as the medium or the channel. Mediums include face-to-face conversations, telephone calls, emails, texts, or written words. Selection of an appropriate medium for transmitting a particular message can be critical to the effectiveness of the communication.

There’s one more factor. There’s noise that interferes with communication. Noise is anything that distorts the message. That can include different perceptions of the message due to:

  • Language barriers
  • Interruptions
  • Emotions
  • Biases
  • Attitudes

The quality of the communication depends on the encoding of the message, the decoding of the message, the medium chosen, and the noise.

lack of communication skills in the workplace

Effective communication is a two-way process that requires effort and skill by both sender and receiver. That’s why this illustration of the process shows it going both directions and shows both parties being receivers and senders.

The receiver is responsible for being open and receptive to the message and then checking for understanding.

The sender is responsible for delivering the message as clearly as possible and for checking to make sure the recipient understands what has been conveyed.

For managers, the best practice is to seek clarity in all communications, whether you are sending or receiving the message. This will save you a lot of time and stress as you eliminate misunderstandings. It will also model for others how to get clarity and how to be more effective in communicating.

Improving Communication When You’re the Receiver

When you’re the receiver, try to focus on the message without getting distracted. This includes eliminating the distractions inside your own head that keep you from giving your full attention to the sender. We seem to think that we can multitask while receiving communications, but studies reveal most of us are not as capable as we think we are at multitasking.

You also have a responsibility to be receptive and to make it easy for the sender to convey information to you. Help by putting the speaker at ease. Look and act interested. Don’t be too quick to interrupt or cut off the sender.

It also makes it easier for the sender to effectively communicate when you make an effort to understand what’s being said and why it matters. Put yourself in the sender’s shoes when you hear an important message. What feelings accompany the message? What is the Sender’s point of view? You don’t have to agree with it, but you can try to understand it.

If you ‘re not clear about what’s being communicated, your responsibility as a recipient is to ask for clarification. Even when you think you do understand, it’s a good idea to paraphrase and repeat what you received and then to ask, “Is that right?”

You may notice that most of these responsibilities for the receiver are linked to listening skills. That’s absolutely right. Listening is a particularly valuable skill, as we covered in a previous post in The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers. It’s not as easy as we think it is to truly listen effectively to others.

On average, people in a business setting can pay attention for no more than 60 seconds without being distracted by an unrelated thought ... and for many of us, that attention span is closer to 30 seconds.

Why is it so difficult to listen and give our full attention to other people? Here are a few reasons:

1. We don’t think of listening as a discipline or skill.

We routinely confuse hearing with listening. That, in and of itself, is a barrier.

We aren’t taught the skills of listening in school. You may have taken a speech & communications class in middle school or high school, but you learned there how to speak and not how to listen. It’s a skill that is underappreciated, so it’s no wonder that it remains underdeveloped and underused for many of us.

2. We typically do not listen with an open mind.

Why? Because we’re hard-wired to build on our past experiences.

We drive on autopilot, for example, because our brain remembers how we did it before. You can type with your thumbs on various devices without thinking because you don’t have to think.

Similarly, we make assumptions, judgments and leaps when we listen to someone talk about anything that’s even a little bit familiar. Your brain gets in the way of listening because it races to make connections instead of keeping you focused.

3. Bad habits in the way we deliver messages result in bad habits in receiving messages.

Often, communication is a contest -- who can be the loudest, sharpest, fastest talker vs. who can hear and understand the best. Therefore, we place a higher value on speaking than on listening.  

4. Listening happens inside our heads, too.

We get lazy. after all, who knows if we are really, truly listening? So we put on listening looks and do the head bobbing and mmm-hmm’ing, and we think that we can get by….

Despite those difficulties, there is tremendous value in listening. It’s worth the extra effort to build listening habits that make you more effective. Consider these benefits:

  1. Listening is essential to “earn the right” to comment on and be involved with others’ issues or concerns. We must listen effectively and be perceived as listening fully before we can proceed with any advising or asking for support. Cutting to the chase without having earned the right to do so will usually be interpreted as arrogance.

  2. Listening signifies that you are interested in and perhaps even willing to enter the speaker’s world. By showing this willingness, we differentiate ourselves from others who do not listen. It’s the beginning of trust. Think about someone you trust. Do the reasons you trust them include that they listen to you & try to understand you? Of course!

  3. When you really listen to someone, you’ll also benefit by gaining knowledge and insight into that person and whatever subject they are talking about. You won’t miss key points. You won’t gloss over the stuff that you think you already know. At the same time, you’ll be making the speaker feel important, appreciated and respected. The benefit of making them feel that way is that they will want to reciprocate and will give you time, attention, information in return.

  4. When you listen and the speaker knows you’re listening, you’ll understand each other much better. The speaker will likely open up more to you. This will increase the depth of your relationship and minimize misunderstandings, potential mistakes and crossed wires down the road.

  5. Better listening leads to better relationships and fewer problems.

This is what good listeners do differently. These are behaviors, not intentions. Behaviors are choices. You can choose to do any (or all!) of these things more frequently. Good listeners:

  • Probe for clarification, back story, feelings, details
  • Listen for content and feeling
  • Empathize and put themselves in the speaker’s shoes
  • Listen for what’s different, not familiar
  • Avoid interrupting to pounce on the first bit they have a solution or idea for
  • Take it all seriously, don’t rush to minimize
  • Spot hidden assumptions, inaccuracies
  • Get rid of distractions while listening, focus fully on the speaker
  • Hear the whole story before judging, responding
  • Encourage with body language, attention
  • Look at the speaker
  • Never seem rushed, impatient or bored
  • Ask questions to thoroughly understand
  • Work to be interested, not to be interesting
  • Hold back before responding to make sure they don’t steer the conversation away from what the speaker is trying to say

This free, on-demand webinar is a basic introduction to communication skills with some tips for quality listening you may not have heard before. Be sure to check out the ECHO Listening Assessment below, too. It’s a powerful tool for improving communication effectiveness in your workplace.

Improving Communication When You’re the Sender

When you’re the sender, disseminating your message is not the point. The point of communication is getting the other party to understand what you want them to know or do.

That means you are responsible for:

1. Sorting What You Want to Say Before You Say It.

Take time -- especially with your most important messages -- to get clarity for yourself about the main idea.

That way you can be brief, and you won’t lose the main idea in a jumble of other ideas.

It may help to think about your objective for the communication. What outcome are you looking for? What do you want your receiver to know or do?

2. Picking the Right Medium

Convenience and expediency may interfere with communicating an important message. You’ll need to consider which medium will help you achieve your objective. A pointed text may be appropriate for conveying urgency, but it may not be the right medium for giving feedback that requires tone and two-way dialogue.

Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes. What medium will make it easiest to understand the message? Know your receiver’s preferences instead of resorting to your own preferred medium every time.  

3. Aligning All Aspects of Your Message Delivery

You need to match your:

  • Body language
  • Tone
  • Facial expressions
  • Word choice

Your actions related to the message also need to be aligned with the message. Otherwise, you can confuse your receiver.

4. Delivering Messages That Inspire Others

Because you’re in a managerial role, part of your job is to get others to take action. Your messages need to be received AND compelling enough to mobilize others.  

5. Overcommunicate

Important messages need to be repeated multiple times. You’ll want to communicate about the important stuff over and over again until others are saying it, too. It will feel like overcommunication to you a long time before it feels that way to others.

Listening: The Ultimate Soft Skill for a Manager

Before you step into the sender role, make sure you’ve been a good receiver.

Understand how others will be impacted by what you say. Solicit opinions and input before you make decisions that affect others. Enlist support by creating plans that include others and help them achieve their goals. In other words, to be a sender everyone wants to respond to, first be a receiver.

That brings us back to listening skills, doesn’t it? As a manager, nothing serves you better than listening well and asking questions to demonstrate your genuine interest. Communication becomes so much easier when your intention for it is to understand others.CTA_Logo_PFLA ECHO package_030923