If new managers want to take communication to the next level, consider the simple but powerful teaching strategy:
- Make them aware—describe what effective communication means to the organization.
- Make them care—explore what good communication means to them.
- Sell it—explain the value of good communication in terms of self-development.
- Break it down—spell out exactly what they need to do, step-by-step.
- Make it easy—use ready-made lessons and exercises.
- Get them involved—give them credit for self-directed learning.
- Make it practical—spotlight opportunities to practice on the job.
- Follow up with coaching style feedback to reinforce the lessons whenever possible.
What Should Be Taught?
We’ve helped many organizations develop clear standards for interpersonal communication—what I call a code of conduct—based on this list of best practices:
- Listen twice as much as you talk.
- Never interrupt or let your mind wander when others are speaking.
- Exhibit respect, kindness, courtesy, and good manners.
- Always prepare in advance so you are brief, direct, and clear.
- Before trumpeting a problem, try to think of at least one potential solution.
- Take personal responsibility for everything you say and do.
- Don’t make excuses when you make a mistake; just apologize and make every effort to fix it.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously, but always take your commitments and responsibilities seriously.
- Always give people credit for their achievements, no matter how small.
While this code is a set of broad performance standards, it is a good place to start. You can use this code (or portions of it) whenever you need to evaluate exactly what is wrong with an employee’s communication habits. Identify the gaps and then zero in on them. Start coaching that employee on closing the gap, one best practice at a time.
If there is an acute problem, our research shows that it is likely to fall into one of three common interpersonal communication problems managers identify:
Employees Talk Too Much at the Wrong Times
There are two types of overzealous talkers. First are the employees who speak up—and don’t stop when most people would. Teach them to start listening with much more focus and purpose, to let other people talk, to wait through uncomfortable silences, and to get in the habit of writing down their initial reactions before speaking them.
Second are employees who always seem to be taking a break. Keep the break-takers on task. Hold them to high quotas of output. Coach them to replace breaks with more concrete tasks on tighter timetables. Keep track of all that in writing. Follow up. Get them off the team if they don’t change their ways.
Employees Interrupt Each Other
“Interrupters” come in two forms. First, are the conversational interrupters. They are almost always the same people as those who talk too much.
Second are the structural interrupters. They try to catch you for “spontaneous” unscheduled meetings. The antidote to interruptions is regular structured dialogue. When everybody is in the habit of regular, structured one-on-ones, it’s much easier to push the interrupters into scheduled conversations.
For those who have a harder time making effective use of scheduled one-on-ones, coach them on the fundamentals. Come in with a clear agenda: a list of updates, questions, and decision points. And, whenever possible, try to choose a regular time and place, and stick with them as long as you can. If you have to make a change, try to stick with the new time or place as long as you can.
In-person meetings are always preferable, but if your only option is telephone, don’t let the phone call slip. And make sure to support these phone conversations with clear, point-by-point e-mails before and after your calls.
Employees Need Guidance Handling Electronic Communication
Oftentimes people sidestep one-on-ones and prefer instead to communicate via electronic message. Electronic communication can be a very powerful tool, but sloppy e-communication practices are every bit as much of a nuisance as poor in-person communications. Make sure your direct reports learn and practice good email discipline, which includes these guidelines:
- Send fewer, higher-quality messages.
- Before sending a message, always ask yourself if this is something that should instead be communicated in person.
- Send first drafts to yourself.
- If you are messaging so you don’t forget, be sure to send the reminder to yourself, and not the other person.
- Only copy people who need to be cc’d.
- Use red flags and other indicators sparingly and with true purpose.
- Make subject lines smart; context is everything.
- Make messages brief, simple, and orderly.
- Create a system for filing incoming and outgoing electronic communication based on how you will use them later.
- Establish time blocks daily when you will review and respond to electronic communication and let people know when to expect your responses.
Communication skills are critical in the workplace. As a new manager, you can take a lead role in helping your employees grow in this often-lacking, but all too necessary, soft skill.