This article was based on episode 013 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. Download the free miniguide or join The Modern Manger community on Patreon to access the full guide to effective communication.
As managers, we’re constantly communicating with others by email, chat, phone, and in meetings. We share instructions, feedback, praise, and gratitude. We provide information, ask questions, and offer suggestions. It’s important to stop and reflect on our communication skills, and see if there are ways we can improve. In this post, we’ll explore five skills that can take your communication as a manager from good to rockstar.
SKILL #1: SHARE THE RIGHT INFORMATION WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Our job as managers is to make sure we’re sharing the right information with each of our team members and cultivating that same practice among them. If we share too much, we risk confusing or overloading people. If we share too little, we risk sending people down the wrong path or setting them up to fail.
Knowing how much is the right amount, and who needs to know it, is more art than science. In general, the rule of thumb is more is better than less. And yet it’s not just about how much information you share but the clarity with which you share it. Luckily, that is more science than art.
Few things are more frustrating than walking away from a conversation, or reading an email, with no idea what you’re supposed to do next. Maybe worse is not getting any communication at all. In both cases, you’re missing information that would otherwise help you do your best work.
When we don’t share information in a timely manner, we leave our colleagues in the dark. Similarly, when we share information that is confusing or incomplete, we create unnecessary complexity. It’s not just managers who need to be better at sharing information. This is a team competency, but improving starts with you as the team leader.
Creating a culture of seamless information flow takes time, but there are a few easy practices that can help you improve the clarity and timeliness of your communications:
After a meeting, consider who needs to know the outcomes of the conversation - what decisions were made and what action items were assigned and to whom.
Share the “why,” and not just the “what,” especially for decisions. Explain the thinking behind your message or request so employees feel more informed and empowered.
Ask yourself what details are important to ensure understanding and provide them.
When sending an email, use formatting to call attention to key information or required actions. Keep emails as short as possible while conveying the necessary information.
One senior manager of a large company shared with me his practice of walking around the office chatting with employees and getting their thoughts on new ideas. Soon, word got back to him that some employees were beginning to implement these new ideas. He was shocked. He had never formally endorsed these ideas; his meanderings were more about brainstorming and connecting with his employees.
What this manager had failed to do was provide context to his employees about his motivation. From the employees’ perspective, here was one of the bosses talking about new initiatives with them. They went up a ladder of inference: Wasn’t it their duty to do what he wanted? After some coaching on his communication skills, the manager began to preface his chats like this: “This is just a conversation to explore possibilities. You don’t need to act on any of this right now. I just value your opinion and want to hear what you think.” This framing relieved the employees of the pressure of taking on additional projects as well as strengthened the employee-manager bond.
This type of misunderstanding happens often in meetings. A manager throws out ideas or makes suggestions and it’s unclear whether these are action items or simply thought offerings. It’s important for managers to distinguish between ideas for possibility, suggestions or recommendations which should be taken under serious advisement, and requirements or assignments which must get done. Clarity on motivation saves everyone time and energy.
SKILL #2: CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING
We can do our best to communicate clearly, but it’s about more than what we say - it’s also about what the other person hears. That’s why it’s important to check for understanding.
Teachers check for understanding all the time to ensure their students comprehend subject material or a homework assignment. When we’re sharing information or instructions as managers, ask team members to repeat back what they’ve heard, and if there is a gap in understanding, correct it on the spot. This ensures that everyone is aligned. The other benefit of checking for understanding is that people are more likely to remember and internalize the information. It’s why we repeat a new name or phone number when we first hear it; it’s new information and we’re processing it.
Avoid asking “yes or “no” questions like “Does this make sense?” or “Got it?”People may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to admit they don’t know or comprehend something, and may respond “yes” even if they don’t fully understand. Try one of these open-ended questions instead based on what works best for the kind of information you’re sharing:
Repetition: “I know I just shared a lot so reflect back to me: What are the key steps you need to take or what are the key points you heard?” This asks the listener to repeat the key information.
Interpretation: “What do you think about this plan? What steps or pieces of information are missing?” This asks the person to make sense of what they heard and share their opinion.
Confusion: “What did I say that was unclear? I’m sure I missed something so what else do want to know? What questions do you have?” This asks the recipient to reflect on any elements of confusion. If possible, position the lack of clarity as a flaw in your communication rather than their lack of understanding.
SKILL #3: PRACTICE TWO-WAY COMMUNICATION
Sometimes, being a great communicator means holding back and allowing the other person to share. As much as communication is about what we say, it’s also about what we don’t say.
Active listening means looking for signals and clues from the other person and adjusting your approach or response given what you’re learning. Once, I was explaining something to a colleague and I could see him lose attention as I was talking. Rather than continue, knowing he wasn’t going to assimilate what I’d say, I paused and asked him a question. This immediately grabbed his attention and re-engaged him in the conversation. From that point on, I shifted my remarks so that we had a back-and-forth instead of my prior approach of unloading all the information first and saving dialogue until the end.
Make Space for Others
Another element of two-way communication is encouraging others to participate. When we listen first and talk second, we allow others to share more of what they’re thinking. In many team and organizational cultures, debating or disagreeing with the boss is uncommon if not unwanted. But questions are a powerful way to open up thinking and invite others to engage. One questioning tactic is the 5 Whys. You ask “Why?” to every statement the other person makes to uncover deeper thinking rather than making assumptions about why something is the way it is.
Recently I was coaching someone who was concerned about taking a specific action. I had lots of ideas as to why she might be uncomfortable with this action, but rather than give her advice on those assumptions, I asked her to share why she was concerned. Even that single inquiry opened up a new line of dialogue for us and I was able to help her surface deeper thinking while providing more relevant recommendations.
We can bring a sense of curiosity to our conversations. We can seek to understand before we offer our opinions. And, we can ask questions like “What might go wrong if we do this?” or “How could we make this idea even better” to encourage others to communicate more openly.
SKILL #4: MATCH THE MEDIUM TO THE CONTENT
All communication has a combination of content and the medium in which it’s conveyed. Some things are better said in person or verbally, usually in a meeting, whereas other things can be shared by email, and yet other items are better suited to a short chat message in Slack or text. Knowing what content should be shared in what format can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of the communication.
Be intentional about matching the content with the format. If something can be said in an email, a document or a dashboard, or a video or voice message, share it that way instead of reporting it out in a meeting so people can consume it in their own time. Higher stakes information may require follow-up. If you’re worried people won’t read or listen to a message, set up a five minute check-in with each person to cover key points and answer questions, or ask them to leave comments in the material, or at least acknowledge they’ve reviewed it and don’t have any questions.
Another area in which medium and message are often confused is delegation. I assign tasks to my team members by creating a task in our shared task app. In cases where a longer explanation is needed, I’ll make the task and assign it to them, but then send a second message with more context and information using whatever format is most appropriate. Sometimes it is a quick note in Slack, other times a video message. It’s a little more work for me because I have to communicate twice - first by assigning the task and second by explaining more. But, I know it’s more likely to get done if it’s in our task system, and, the additional information is in a format that is most useful for the recipient, which will ultimately enable him or her to get the job done.
SKILL #5: SAY WHAT NEEDS TO BE SAID (EVEN IF IT’S HARD)
Finally, rockstar managers communicate what needs to be said. This shows up in the form of giving feedback, calling out bad behaviors, and sharing unpopular opinions or information. There are occasions when speaking up is risky or scary, but not speaking up is much worse.
Giving critical feedback is one of the areas I struggle with most. I dislike conflict and I’d prefer to avoid giving bad news of any kind, but I know that’s not helpful for the other person or my business. In episode 6 of The Modern Manager, Fran Sepler calls feedback a gift - we are giving the recipient a gift in the form of opportunity for growth and development. I find it easier to give critical feedback with the mindset of offering guidance and opportunity for growth.
In other situations, saying what needs to be said may mean having a straight talk with your team as a whole or individually. One person I know was really unhappy with her job, but didn’t want to quit until she knew what she was going to do next. She began showing up late and leaving early every day. Her boss didn’t say anything. Her colleagues noticed. They were unhappy she was getting special treatment. Even if her boss was OK with her new schedule, he should have raised the issue with her and also communicated with the rest of the team rather than letting an unhealthy dynamic form.
YOU CAN DEVELOP ROCKSTAR COMMUNICATION SKILLS
With practice and awareness, it’s possible to continually improve your communication skills as a manager. And as you get better, you may just find your colleagues communicate better with you and work outcomes improve.
Download the free miniguide or join The Modern Manger community on Patreon to access the full guide. This article was based on episode 013 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher.
You can also listen to every episode here.
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