My thesis is that over 90% of business issues have poor communication as a root cause. It follows that even small improvements in communication effectiveness drive outsized team results.
Sometimes we choose to say nothing out of fear, shame, or concern about hurt feelings. We may feel unsafe in speaking truth to the holder of a higher title. We may clumsily approach an issue and not land our point. We decide that somebody else is better equipped to handle the problem, then watch it not being handled over days and weeks. We don’t share what we know, when we know it, because we believe the stakes are too high, we may be wrong in our assumptions, or we may incur the wrath of a project sponsor target-fixated on finishing no matter what. We fear disappointing someone close to us and opt for silence.
In short, there are dozens of reasons we don’t communicate effectively, and you can probably add dozens more from your experience.
Here are some principles to consider as a guide to better team communication:
1. Avoidance is toxic. Confront and communicate. Take out a piece of 8.5 X 11 paper. Place a small dot in the center of the page. That’s the problem in front of you. Now, draw a giant cloud around that dot, nearly filling the page. That’s the cloud of emotions, stories, and assumptions that grow over time when we don’t tackle an issue or hold a discussion quickly. So what: This type of avoidance, compounded by dozens or hundreds of employees over time, creates a low-trust culture that spends most of its efforts focused on internal issues and infighting rather than delivering excellent work to its customers. By confronting the problem directly, you get better at the discussions, the problems are solved more quickly, and your role model behavior spreads to others. Quickstart tip: Select one discussion that you’ve delayed, schedule it, and respectfully hold it. Notice the sense of relief after it’s finished. Notice the degree to which your fear was exaggerated. Select the following discussion and repeat.
2. Deliver the tough message now or clean up the mess later. Leaders have a responsibility to provide respectful straight talk to their teams. When we convince ourselves that a single employee’s behavior isn’t that bad, or it will take care of itself, or that’s just Sid, or somebody else will handle it, we abdicate our responsibility to every employee on the team. That includes the employee who deserves the feedback, so they can focus on what they need to improve. So what: If you have a 10-person team, just one problem employee can reduce productivity by 30%. Let’s stipulate that we care about the well-being of all of our employees and also acknowledge that repeated disruption by one will never exceed in importance the need to minimize the impact on the other 9. Quickstart tip: Write down your opening lines and practice them with a trusted team member. Use what works and change what doesn’t. Be honest, helpful, and kind in your feedback and give them a path to win going forward. And please remember that you don’t have to do it perfectly, only earnestly with a motive to help the person improve.
3. People aren’t mind readers. Tell them what matters. When we think about something repeatedly over days and weeks, we often convince ourselves that we’ve already discussed it with others even when we have not shared it with anyone. We regularly make assumptions about what people should and do know, a fact that works to the detriment of effective communication. We think we are communicating only to find out later that our message didn’t land. So what: If the message is important to you, repeat it until (and then after) you are tired of hearing yourself say it. It’s about this time that others are beginning to listen to it, understand it, and, with luck, embrace it enough to work on it with you. Quickstart tip: At the end of your team meetings, ask, “Can I clarify anything we’ve discussed, or are you clear what needs to be done?” This gives people the green light to confirm or ask questions.
4. Speak less and listen until it hurts. While not universal, many of us need to be heard or hear ourselves talk. We tell ourselves we are adding value to the discussion, but don’t often ask for feedback from others on that bold assumption. If you show up in meetings with all the answers, frequently interrupt, or fire hose ideas, then this principle will be especially helpful. So what: We learn less when we are talking than when we are listening. Some of the smartest people in the room get drowned out by the loudest. Have you ever been with a person who said almost nothing for long stretches and then opened their mouth to reveal a level of insight, critical thought, and distinction that left the room in awe? Observe these quiet stars as exemplars of thoughtful and meaningful contribution. Quickstart tip: On a PostIt or an index card, write the phrase “Say nothing” and put it in front of you on the table. Refer to it every time you get the urge to speak. Also, don’t worry, if you are inclined to talk more, you will easily blow through the “say nothing” stop sign during the meeting to get your points across. Perhaps a bit more thoughtfully.
5. Assume nothing. Check for understanding. Clarity is power. It is frustrating to leave a meeting of any length, realizing later that you are not sure what you are accountable for delivering to the team. A former colleague, when I wasn’t clear, would say to me, “So you just want me to go do a really good job then?” That was my cue to laugh and to do a better job making my expectations clear. So what: It isn’t reasonable to hold people accountable to unclear standards and directions. If the work is essential, it’s worth the extra few minutes to set expectations and confirm the person understands them. Clarity is the vaccination against violated expectations. Quickstart tip: Ask one person to paraphrase what they heard and what it means to them. Make it safe and patiently repeat your message to the group if it missed the mark. If your thoughts are essential for others to hear, it’s up to you to make sure they heard them.
Takeaway: Given the importance of communication to organization effectiveness, even small improvements generate outsized results. Try one thing from the list and build from there. While repetition strengthens habits, the starting comes first.