As human beings we are always communicating something—just not always what we intend, not always what we think we are. Good communication isn’t a foregone conclusion.
For example, during a new employee’s first few days at work, we communicate our expectations and their portfolio of responsibilities. We outline appropriate metrics for the evaluation of success and a timeline for those evaluations to take place. We introduce the new hire to other team members and affiliated teams with whom they will need to have a good working rapport. They are given ample opportunity to express their hopes and aspirations—their expectations—associated with the role as well.
We make the time to help them at the start so they are poised to be successful early and become ongoing strong performers thereafter.
Or at least, we think we communicate these things. Or we intend to. Or we have an initial conversation and don’t follow up to make sure our expectations were received and understood. Our failure to communicate sends a message as well, just not a helpful one.
Good communication is like planting a tree. If we take the time to prepare the ground, add nutrients, water properly, and provide support at the beginning, we up the odds of successfully growing a great tree. If we communicate well—if we are clear in laying the groundwork—at the beginning of an employee’s tenure, successful ongoing communication is easy.
If we don’t, it isn't.
As an experiment with my podcast last year, I dedicated an episode to a live coaching session. Stacy DiStefano was my volunteer guest. She’d been with her firm for many years in a variety of roles and was a successful and valued employee. Recently, she’d moved to a position that was not only new to her, but newly created in the company. Six months in, she was frustrated; there were no clear parameters for her role, no stated objectives for her to achieve, and no metrics designated to measure accomplishment. She wasn’t sure who she was accountable to. No one seemed to have an idea of what success in her new endeavor would look like, including her; in fact, she wasn’t sure anyone cared about the role or its success. She was considering moving to a different company.
My advice to Stacy was to initiate the conversation that should have been initiated by her manager, but hadn’t been. She developed a framework for the position and what she hoped to accomplish in it, taking it to her manager for ongoing discussions about vision, processes, metrics, evaluation timetables, and the like. When I spoke with her again just a few weeks later, she was invigorated and excited by the prospects that a few simple discussions had opened to her. What a loss to her firm it would have been if this capable and enthusiastic employee had left for greener pastures, simply because her leaders weren’t talking!
Earlier in my own career I was at the top of my game as a stock analyst and had been for a while. The next step was very much on my mind, and what I wanted was a move into a management track. But the senior executive whose support I tried to enlist in this cause was dismissive of my aspiration. The conversation—so important to me—wasn’t a conversation at all. With the door to progress slammed in my face, I left the firm not long after.
Poor communication is offered as a chief cause of failure in relationships of all kinds, including our relationships at work. Sometimes the pendulum swings to the extreme of rude, and we appear to be demanding of, and berating, management. Sometimes we go too far in the other direction, and we seem unwilling to engage in the difficult conversations required to optimize the work of individuals and teams.
Kim Scott, in her recent book, Radical Candor, offers the example of an employee she calls Bob. Though Bob’s work was substandard, Kim couldn’t bring herself to have the honest conversation that would help get him on track. Ultimately, she was forced to let Bob go.
This outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion; Bob had come to her with excellent credentials and solid references and he went on to be a success with other firms. But he needed clearly articulated expectations early in his tenure, and direct feedback and constructive criticism about his work.
Good leaders establish a culture of proactive, honest communication. Respectful, inclusive conversations are frequent and rigorous, forestalling many problems and responding with forethought to those that do arise. It’s important to remember that the research shows that virtually none of us is as clear as we think we are (see Heidi Grant Halvorson, No One Understands You and What to Do About It). This is something that nearly everyone needs to think about and work to improve.
Articulate what you need to communicate in your own mind. Think about how you want to express it. Offer encouragement, but also be straight about something that isn’t working. Offer positive first, then negative, and more positive than negative—at a ratio of five to one. Don’t drag out bad news; deliver it quick. Once an employee has been criticized and learned that they are still safe, it will be much easier for both of you on future occasions.
These may seem like hard conversations, but, in fact, the more we build a workplace culture that emphasizes open communication and respect for the aspirations of individual employees as well as the needs of the firm, the easier the conversations become. Like any other business practice or process, honest communication can become a routine that no longer requires effort to implement.
Communication is less about what we think we say and more about what others hear.
So, turn over a new leaf today. Plant a new tree. Make clarity a priority.