As someone who writes and teaches about effective communication in the workplace, I suspect the people I work and live with are expecting me to model good communication skills all the time. The good news: I try really hard to always do the right thing and impact people positively. The bad news, I’m human and sometimes I don’t get it right.
One of the things I’m proud of about Candid Culture, is that we are real people, working with real people. We work very hard to practice effective communication in the workplace and to always model what we’re teaching. And yet, like all people, we get busy, rushed, and tired. We read emails we intend to reply to, but then forget to do so. We occasionally send emails, when we should pick up the phone.
In my world, a good communicator is not someone who always communicates perfectly.
A good communicator who practices effective communication in the workplace is someone who:
Cares about people and consistently works to communicate in the way others need.
Asks for and is open to feedback about how they impact people.
Listens and watches other people’s verbal and non-verbal communication.
Alters their communication style to meet other people’s needs.
Takes responsibility when things don’t go well.
I advocate for picking up the phone, even when you want to do everything but, being patient, even when you’re frustrated, and asking questions, versus accusing. And I’m going to admit, I’m working to do these things too. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t. I’m in the trenches with you, working to say and do the right things every day.
I promised you five tips to practice effective communication in the workplace and to be generous with people:
Only call people when you have adequate time, attention, and patience to have whatever conversation needs to be had.
If you need a few days to return a call, say so. Let the person know when you’ll call.
Prepare for conversations. Plan what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.
Don’t have hard conversations when you’re frustrated, tired, or busy. They won’t go well.
If the conversation goes poorly, call back later and clean it up.
Being a good communicator doesn’t mean being perfect. It means caring enough to notice when you miss the mark, cleaning up your messes, and working to do it better next time. I’m working on the above recommendations too. And when I screw it up, you can be assured that my mistakes will become examples in our training programs of what not to do, followed by a new technique that will hopefully work for all of us.
Breakdowns happen. There will be days people won’t give you what you need to complete projects. Things will break. And you will look bad. When breakdowns happen, I always ask myself, “What could I have done to prevent this situation?” or “What did I do to help create this situation?” I see myself as accountable for whatever breakdowns occur.
It may sound odd that I always look at myself when breakdowns occur, even when it’s someone else who didn’t do their job, but it’s just easier. I can’t control anyone else. But I can control me (admittedly, some days I do a better job at this than others). When I can identify something I could have done to make a situation go differently, I feel more in control – aka better.
It’s like getting off a highway versus sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The alternate route may take longer, but at least I’m moving. I feel like I’m doing something and thus have more control. Taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is similar. When you’re accountable, you can do something to improve your situation. When someone else is accountable, you’re at the mercy of other people and have very little control.
There are, of course, exceptions to the practice that “we’re always accountable.” Terrible acts of violence, crime, and illness happen to people, about which they have no control. But in general, in our day-to-day lives, there is typically something we did to contribute to a bad situation or something we can do to improve it.
Here are five practices for improving difficult situations, even when you didn’t create the mess (alone).
1) Ask more questions. If you’re not clear about what someone is expecting from you, ask. You’re responsible for doing good work, regardless of the type of direction you receive.
2) Tell people what you think they’re expecting and how you’re planning to approach a project or task, to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned. Clarifying expectations beats doing several weeks worth of work, only to discover what you created isn’t what someone else had it mind.
3) Ask for specific feedback as projects progress. Don’t wait until the end of a project to find out how you performed.
4) Say “thank you” to whatever feedback you receive versus defending yourself. People will be pleasantly surprised and their upset will dissipate more quickly. That could sound like, “That’s good feedback. I’m sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me.”
5) Admit when you make a mistake or when you wish you had done something differently. Don’t wait for someone to tell you. Saying, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right with you?” goes a long way.
I consistently ask the following questions:
“What could I have done differently?”
“What did I do to contribute to this situation?”
“What can I do now to make this situation better?”
I encourage you to ask these questions, even when someone else drops the ball. You can’t control others, but you can control you. And your happiness and success is your responsibility.
You disagree with something someone above you said or did. How do you tell the person without actually telling him?
Lots of people think they can’t give direct feedback when talking to someone at a higher level. I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. The ability to speak freely has little to do with titles and more to do with the quality of your relationship. When you’re comfortable with people and have mutual trust, you can say (almost) anything, regardless of titles and levels. But that’s not the true purpose of today’s blog. So I’m going to stick to the topic at hand –what to say when you feel like you can’t say very much.
When you don’t have the relationship to say what you really think, manage up by asking a question instead. Engage the person in a conversation. At some point during the conversation, you’ll be able to say what you think.
For example, you question a decision but don’t want to overtly say you question the decision.
Here’s how the conversation could go:
“I wasn’t involved in the conversations to select our new payroll software. Can you give me a little history? What had us choose our current provider?”
“What software features were important when selecting the software?”
“What problem were we trying to solve that drove the need to make a change?”
“What do you like about the software we picked? What don’t you like?”
** Obviously this is meant to be a discussion, not an interrogation. Ask one question at a time and see where the conversation goes. You may ask all of these questions and you may ask only one.
The point is to gather more information. Manage up by seeking to understand before you express an opinion. As the conversation progresses, you might see opportunities to express your point of view.
Here are three suggestions if you’re going to practice the technique of asking questions as a way to manage up and eventually give feedback:
1. When you ask a question, come from a place of genuine curiosity. If you aren’t truly curious and asking questions is just a technique you found in some blog, it will show.
2. Watch your tone of voice. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you have a tone issue.
3. Be patient. Asking questions may feel easier than giving direct feedback, but it also takes more patience and time.
As the conversation progresses, you might be asked for your opinion. Before saying what you think, remember, no one likes to be told that s/he is wrong. And the person you’re talking to likely had a hand in making the decision you’re questioning. Be careful not to judge.
Instead of overtly judging, consider saying something like:
“I think the new system has potential and also has some limitations. Do you want feedback as we use the system and get to know it better?”
“What specifically would you like feedback on? What are you not looking for feedback on?”
“What’s the best way to provide input and to whom?”
You can speak more freely when you have the relationship to do so and have permission. Until you have both, earn the right to give feedback by asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. And only provide your point of view when you’re asked and are certain you have all the information to defend your position.
In other words, employees need attention, and attention requires time – time many managers may not feel they have.
Here is a five-step formula for employee retention and employee engagement:
Get to know employees better and differently.
Have meaningful, one-on-one meetings [at least] monthly.
Give balanced feedback as work is done.
Ask for and be open to feedback.
Create opportunities for employees to do the work that interests them most.
Managers, how do you make time for these meetings when you are busy and have several direct reports?
Meet for 15-30 minutes.
Ask direct reports to create an agenda and run the meetings.
Ask direct reports to send follow-up notes of decisions and plans made during meetings. Give some of the accountability away.
If meetings get cancelled, reschedule as soon as possible. Direct reports take cancelled meetings personally. Cancelled meetings that are not rescheduled send the message that managers don’t care about employees and their careers.
Employees, if your manager doesn’t schedule meetings with you:
Ask permission to put a monthly meeting on your manager’s calendar.
Provide rationale for why you want to meet – to get your manager’s feedback and ensure you’re focused on the right work.
Ask permission to reschedule meetings when they get cancelled.
Don’t take cancelled meetings personally.
Offer to meet with your manager via the phone when it’s convenient for him/her. Leverage commute and travel time.
Employees need time with their managers. Meaningful discussions and work result in employee engagement and employee retention. So managers, make the time, even when you don’t feel you have it. Ask questions you don’t ask now. Give feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. Give your employees an opportunity to do the work that interests them most. And watch your employee engagement and employee retention improve. And if your manager doesn’t do these things, politely and persistently ask. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. We are all 100% accountable for our careers.
When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.
One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”
Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.
I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.
If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.
One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.
There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?
Ten years ago today I left my corporate job and launched Candid Culture, business communication training. I’ll admit to being terrified and being pretty convinced I would fail. I thought about starting the business for 12 years, but was paralyzed by fear. The only thing that finally motivated me to act, was that at the time, I worked for someone who didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t want the internal opportunity he was giving me. Don’t give a woman who can barely use Excel, leadership over the Finance department.
The training and keynote speaking I do have evolved over the past ten years, as organizations’ needs have changed. A few things have remained constant.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past ten years:
People struggle more than I ever realized when receiving negative feedback. People care about the work they do, want to do a good job, and want to be thought well of. Negative feedback calls all of that into question.
Most people question themselves when receiving negative feedback, and that’s a very painful process.
What do to: Give very small amounts of feedback at a time. Share one or two things the person can work on. More negative information sends our brains to a dark place, where we feel we can’t be successful, and performance actually drops.
Provide feedback on the positive changes or lack thereof, that you see. Don’t let people work in a vacuum. After you’ve seen some improvement, give one or two additional pieces of feedback.
Most of us get almost no feedback at work – positive or negative. “Good job” doesn’t qualify as feedback. But that’s almost all the ‘feedback’ most people get.
Even if you ask for feedback, you probably won’t get much, because the other person is concerned about your potential negative reaction.
Managers are afraid employees will quit if they give negativefeedback or report them to HR or the Union.
People really want to know how they’re doing – good and bad – even if they don’t want to hear the message.
Giving negative feedback requires courage and a trusting relationship, in which the feedback recipient trusts that the person’s motives are pure.
So what to do with all of this information? Be courageous and clear. Remember that the purpose of feedback is to be helpful. Care enough to be uncomfortable. Specific is helpful. Giving feedback will always be challenging. If you want to give less feedback, get better at making specific requests. You get what you ask for.
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