Communication is key in the workplace. Here's how to improve

April 12, 2021 - 22 min read
 

Professionals communicating in a meeting

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Why is effective communication so important?

7 common types of communication in the workplace

How your organization benefits from better communication

9 reasons to work on your communication skills

What are the threats of poor communication?

Want to develop communication skills? Start with respect

How to improve communication when working remotely

Why is effective communication so important?

Few things impact workplace culture, productivity, and morale more than communication.

As a manager, building good communication skills has profound short- and long-term benefits for your organization. An effective communicator is able to motivate their team to get more done with better results and fewer misunderstandings. And who doesn’t want fewer misunderstandings?

All of those things can contribute to the company’s success — and to your own personal success.

Let's take a look at different types of communication, why communication skills are so important in the workplace (for your organization and your own career), and strategies for developing better skills.

7 common types of communication in the workplace

Not all work communication is made equal. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through a boring, lengthy meeting with the thought, “This should have been an email.” Different delivery methods are ideal for different types of communication, and depending on the type of information being conveyed can enhance — or detract — from how it is received. An effective communicator will develop different skills and tools to match the type of communication needed.

Leadership communication 

Leaders often deliver one-way communications to their teams. The goal may be to inform or update, such as a memo about a new company policy or a change in direction. Leaders also often communicate to persuade, encourage, and inspire commitment. They often communicate through stories more than data.

Upward communication 

Managers (and team members) often have to communicate to their own manager and to other leaders who are not in their direct chain of command. These may take the form of memos/emails, reports, or a slot in a standing meeting. Regardless of the format, these types of communications should be considered more formal. 

Updates 

Since they’re brief by nature, updates often fall well short of good communication. Use a visual tracker or dashboard to carry the load, and save your verbal or written commentary for drawing the audience’s attention to what is most important — typically, what requires action or further involvement from them. This might include surprises, obstacles, and potential risks, as well as wins. 

Presentations

These formal communication events tend to receive the lion’s share of attention, for good reason. Typically they are aimed at a larger audience with higher stakes and objectives that include informing, influencing, and persuading. In addition, many people fear public speaking, and thanks to TED and other series, we have a high expectation for entertainment as well as insight. 

Meetings 

Meetings, whether large or small, are a critical part of workplace communication. They’re also one of the least understood and most overused types of communication. Effective meetings build synergy between teams and quickly communicate information that would have a high potential to be misunderstood in another format (like email). The best meetings are highly collaborative and leave participants feeling energized, not drained. 

Customer communications 

Communicating with customers can run the entire gamut discussed above, from one-offs to many, in-person, virtual, spoken, or written, formal to ad hoc. In general, all of the considerations of communication among employees go double for customers. Be deliberate and plan your messages to provide what your customer needs, in the way they prefer, and create a positive impression for the company and the product.

Informal interactions 

Informal communications include the emails and chats you engage in all day: making requests, asking for information, responding to requests, and giving or receiving support and guidance. In addition to moving the work of the organization forward, these informal communications have secondary objectives of forming social connections, building culture, establishing trust, and finding common ground. If you focus only on the primary objective of a given interaction, you may find yourself inexplicably having misunderstandings and missing opportunities.

 

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How your organization benefits from better communication

When employees are directly involved in work products and initiatives, it helps to foster a sense of ownership in the company’s future. It also makes them want to work to improve things like the company’s profitability, customer satisfaction, and brand.

Employees who feel personally connected to the company’s mission tend to care more about other details, like whether the brand has a reputation as a great place to work, which in the long term can affect your ability to attract and retain the best talent.

Let’s take a look at some ways that building your communication skills cascades down through your organization — and directly impacts its bottom line.

When employees are directly involved in work products and initiatives, it helps to foster a sense of ownership in the company’s future.

 

9 reasons to work on your communication skills

Better engagement

Better communication results in greater employee engagement, which is a key metric of employee productivity and potential retention. It reinforces that your people are key contributors and people who the company values for their unique skills and experience. In other words, their contribution — and input — truly makes a difference. 

Increased morale

Unhappy team members take more time off of work, are less productive when in-office, and often negatively impact the productivity of other employees when they are present. However, when an employee has an understanding of the work that they have to do and how it connects to the overall success of the team, they bring more energy and pride to their work. Ideas flow more readily, enthusiasm catches, and the quality of the work produced increases dramatically. Effective communication by managers and among team members also encourages the flow of new ideas.

Improved productivity

Better communication techniques help employees to better comprehend their roles, which in turn reduces thrash and miscues and helps employees perform their assigned duties better. Resources and time can be saved through these techniques, therefore getting more work done and reducing stress.

Less ambiguity

Few things cause more frustration and anxiety in the workplace than employees not knowing what is expected of them. Worse still is not clearly understanding assigned roles — and ensuring other members of the team understand that as well. Not knowing who is in charge can create confusion, often resulting in work that needs to be done — and redone — because of unclear expectations.

Reduced churn

From customer support representatives to senior technical staff, experience equals value to customers and to the company. And no organization wants to waste the huge costs of recruiting and training good employees by having them leave quickly. As a key factor in employee engagement and satisfaction, communication adds value to the organization by reducing the turnover of skilled and seasoned staff members.

Greater loyalty

Longer-term, keeping these employees for many years can add strength to the company and impact the bottom line. Many jobs require years of experience before an employee has sufficient expertise to drive innovation, solve critical problems, and lead others. How an employee feels toward the company — based on how they feel they are treated and valued as individuals — impacts how loyal they will be. You don’t want these key players leaving out of frustration or burnout, or jumping ship to a competitor.

Better collaboration

Many of today’s knowledge workers often collaborate in teams. They also tend to use technologies that don’t require team members to be in the same room, the same building, or even the same country, as people increasingly rely on team collaboration software, cloud-based file sharing, and audio/video conferencing. This shift presents new communication challenges, which means managers can facilitate collaboration by helping groups communicate effectively when using the latest technologies. 

Fewer workplace conflicts

Many conflicts originate with miscommunication. Poor communication can create poor relationships or even toxic or hostile work environments. Building clear communication can prevent misunderstandings between managers and employees. This includes honing and refining communication styles that focus on listening to others, having empathy, and considering individual differences. 

Greater motivation

Psychologists have found that unless people understand the “why” of a concept, they will be less likely to understand or remember it. The same goes for many aspects of people’s work lives. As a manager one key communications skill is hearing the “why” and following up with a “because.” This approach can help you not only motivate employees but also avoid resistance to implementing or adhering to policies that were put into place for complex or non-intuitive reasons.

What are the threats of poor communication?

Poor communication comes at a cost

While the value of effective communication skills might seem obvious, they aren’t necessarily pervasive. That poses a threat to companies’ ability to profitably operate, execute on strategy, or be agile in the face of changing customer needs. 

According to Gallup, only 17% of employees strongly agree their company has open communication. It’s no surprise then that 70% of employees describe themselves as being “disengaged” at work. When communication fails, your staff won’t know how to set priorities — ultimately lowering satisfaction and morale.

8 ways poor communication threatens your business

  1. Low engagement
  2. Low trust
  3. Reduced profitability and wasted resources
  4. Frustration/reduced job satisfaction 
  5. Inability to move quickly/missed opportunities
  6. Misalignment
  7. Slow growth
  8. Reduced customer loyalty/customer churn

Want to develop communication skills? Start with respect

What does good work communication look like? It’s clear and succinct. The recipient understands what is important, why, and what action they need to take. But the fundamental principle of all communication should be: respect the other party.  

What does that mean in workplace communication? Communicating, whether with a colleague, a boss, or a customer,  is not an opportunity to show how smart or superior you are — but it’s easy to leave others with the impression that’s all you care about. Effective communication is about the needs of the listener. While it may seem counter-intuitive, a “listener-first” approach will often help you structure the delivery of your message. 

Here are 8 tips for developing your communication skills.

1. Think it through. There are many communications frameworks, but if you want to improve your communication skills, start by getting in the habit of thinking through these 5 questions for any communication you create:

  1. Why are you communicating?
  2. Who is the receiver, audience, or participant? 
  3. What is your goal or objective? Common objectives of work communications include: to request (resources, participation, permission), to inform, to persuade, to connect. 
  4. What do you want the recipient to do as a result of the communication? Common work actions include: send an email to approve or authorize; complete a task in a system; provide comments or data for a shared work product; sign up for an event; download a tool or resource; confirm or correct. Note: Even if your goal is to inform, try to think of a relevant and unobtrusive way for the other party to engage.
  5. What format will best accomplish your goal? 

If you struggle to answer these five questions, it’s a clear sign that your communication effectiveness will benefit from putting in additional time thinking about how and why you communicate. Test your understanding with co-workers or your manager.   

2. Give it time. Great communication benefits from having enough time to think it through. Plan what you want to say and review your communication to make sure it is actually doing the job you need it to. For written communications, especially, this means: revise, revise, revise. Remember, great communication might seem effortless, but it rarely is.

3. Make it easy. In the workplace, communication almost always has a larger goal. People are busy. Don’t make them work too hard to understand what you are saying and what you need them to do. In both written and spoken communications, this often means leading with your main point or objective. State your objective and main point in the first paragraph or in the beginning of a presentation so your audience knows where you’re going. Then fill in the details and complications.

4. Simplify. Focus on what is important. Trim away whatever does not serve. Eliminate jargon. While you don’t want to condescend or “dumb it down,” in everyday work communications, be mindful of not making the other party work too hard to understand. Give more attention to the one or two messages you want to convey. Plan for how you will get the message across and strip all other distractions away. Find a clear, simple phrasing to encapsulate your point. Repeat it at the beginning, middle, and end, and consider using a simple visual or metaphor to make your point clear and memorable.

5. Experiment and diversify. Work on developing different tactics for different communication needs. Focus on experimenting with one aspect of your communication at a time. For example, spend a week paying extra attention to how you structure informal communications. Then spend a week trying different structures for formal meetings or updates.

6. Practice and reflect. Be deliberate about reflecting on what goes well and what doesn’t in your day-to-day communications. Maybe an email to your manager didn’t go well: read it again. Can you see how it might have been misinterpreted? What would you do differently next time? Similarly, if a conversation with a co-worker didn’t yield the expected results, try to identify whether you clearly communicated what you needed. 

7. Consider the full package. Consider recording yourself through a few interactions to gain insight into what your full package is communicating in your daily interactions with your team. Do you make eye contact? Is your facial expression relaxed and confident, or tense? As a leader, do you invite participation from others? Do you leave space for questions and clarification? 

8. Seek feedback. Ask a few trusted co-workers and your manager to rate your communication skills. Start by asking them to rate (i.e., on a scale of 1-10) your written and spoken communication separately. Then ask these 3 questions: 

  1. What one thing should I start doing to communicate better with you?
  2. What one thing should I stop doing in my communications with you?
  3. What one area or skill should I work on to improve how I communicate in this organization?

How to improve communication when working remotely

Communicating well becomes even more important for leaders and managers during remote work. Doing it well can help build trust and connection with your team and avoid some of the frustrations that come from miscommunication. It is easy to get out of sync when employees are working different hours and missing normal interpersonal cues.

Here are a few areas to consider to improve remote communication:

Clarify expectations 

State expectations upfront and repeat them at the end of a communication. Even better, ask the other person to restate their understanding of expectations. 

Engage in 2-way flow 

Being remote and strained by juggling multiple personal and professional responsibilities can make it easier for employees to check out and disengage. Be more deliberate and creative about giving others a role in communication. Ask questions, use polling and ranking tools, solicit responses in the form of emojis, gifs, or one-word descriptors.   

Remember the power of in-person 

A lot can be misinterpreted in the flat space of text without additional cues like tone of voice and facial expression. Don’t default to communicating solely through text or chat. A well-crafted team meeting or quick phone call can establish a better connection and shared understanding, giving others a chance to surface areas of misalignment.

Focus on quality 

People may feel even more protective of their time, so make sure that live events are well-thought-out. Send agendas, meeting objectives, or background reading ahead of time to help people prepare to have productive conversations.

Create informal space 

Assuming good intentions and sharing culture are both foundational for effective day-to-day communication at work. They’re hard to build and maintain without opportunities for casual interaction. 

Show care 

You don’t have to spend a lot of time checking in with people and asking about their personal lives, but, now more than ever, it’s worth reminding yourself that the recipients of your communications are real people who have their own challenges, distractions, hopes, and fears. Before getting on a video call or firing off an email, try picturing that person on the other end.

Start communicating better today

Every year communication tops the list of skills in demand by employers. There's a reason. Communication is what makes our professional and personal relationships go smoothly. It's how we show care, catalyze change, and get things done. 

That's reason enough to improve — and keep improving — these important skills. Luckily, we can all learn to communicate better.


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Published April 12, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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