How to Improve Communication in the Workplace

One of my friends told me about a boss she had. I changed names and specific details for privacy reasons.

My friend, Dana, worked for a simulation company called Simulations For All that created training simulations for their clients. Dana was an outstanding software engineer. Because of her impeccable track record, the company Director of Engineering, Stan, approached Dana and asked her to be the team leader for the upcoming project. She was required to fulfill her team lead duties as well as her normal workload because “it shouldn’t take up that much time.” There was one problem, though.

The company struggled with deadlines. Simulations For All needed to estimate hours spent on the project to bill their client. Anticipating hours worked was an enormous challenge for Dana’s team. Engineers and software developers struggled to determine the duration of tasks for a given project. This new contract was no different. The bulk of the project had unfamiliar tasks to the departments, which proved challenging to predict hours spent on the overall product.

The Vice President, Allen, gathered Dana’s team and others working on the project and demanded that they build better solutions using fewer hours. Allen’s ‘just do it’ attitude caused resentment throughout Dana’s team as they didn’t have the resources to complete the project with fewer hours.

Dana worked for six months to finish the programming to present to their customer. But, the simulation still had errors at the deadline. So, the client agreed to push back the due date. Allen was upset at the delay and reacted by trying to swoop in and fix everything instead of trusting the project leads.

Following other setbacks, Allen eventually told Stan’s replacement, Austin, to remove Dana as project lead for her team. Dana was replaced by one of her coworkers. Dana felt that Allen blamed her for not trying to fix the issues. She could have stated how overworked she was. But the main problem was trust. Dana felt like Allen did not trust her to accomplish the tasks she was required to do.

Allen would come again to try to correct the situation, but when he did, it caused further distrust among Dana’s team. In Dana’s words, she said, “When we talked with [Allen], we didn’t trust that he actually cared about what we said, so we told him what he wanted to hear.”

They finished the project with more delays, frustration, and disappointment.

Be understanding

I won’t ignore that there are two sides to every story. However, Monday night quarterbacking is easy to do when you identify more with your friend than you do her boss.

Communication is a problem here. Dana and Allen both have unmet concerns. Each is having difficulty expressing those concerns in productive ways. As a result, Dana became dissatisfied, Allen continued reacting poorly, and the company suffered.

This vignette shows us three important things.

You must know your people.

Airing your concerns is different from complaining. Consider these two phrases:

“Jim is late with his report again. He’s irresponsible and doesn’t care.”

Or

“Jim is late with his report again. What’s going on?”

It’s easy to fall into the first phrase. We assume that Jim is late because he doesn’t care. Or because his track record shows he’s irresponsible…or…enter the excuse here.

Asking questions takes courage. Leaders ask questions to understand the real issues. Maybe Jim is late because his boss already gave him other tasks that overwhelmed Jim’s workload.

Now, back to the vignette. We can say that Allen should have asked Dana how her billing hour predictions are inaccurate. Or, we can say that Allen should have come down to the department to see what’s happening. And there is probably a myriad of other things Allen should have done to remedy the situation.

Let’s be honest. You can’t force your way into knowing someone. You have to have the desire to know someone, especially your employee. Instead, how much will it take for Allen to call Dana into his office to have an open discussion about billing hours?

It’s a lot easier said than done. Or is it?

You can say you “know” someone because you know their birthday, wife’s name, kid’s names, last vacation spot, and their grandparents too. But, that doesn’t mean anything if your employees don’t know if you care about them.

“We need better communication” is a cop-out answer

Leaders need open communication with their subordinates. In Navy Captain (R) L. David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around, he talks about formal and informal communication with his sailors.

Although formal speech is vital at work to communicate, make room for informal communication to encourage candidness. Your subordinates want to tell you what’s going on in their cubicle, but you have to be willing to listen.

Your subordinates will only tell you what you want to hear when that’s the message you send to them. It’s easy to say that your company needs better communication without implementing a way to make that happen.

Encourage open discussion. Make your employees tell you what they experience. Abraham Lincoln was notorious for keeping his office door open to anyone who wished to see him. Have an open-door policy and listen carefully to what your employees have to say.

Finally, stop falling back on the “we need better communication” answer. It’s not that you need better communication. You need more of the right kind of interaction. That is, you need your correspondence to take action instead of staying within a boardroom.

Support your successor

Have you ever been replaced at work and now are under the same person who took your place? It’s a disheartening feeling. Resist the urge to complain. The people you formerly led are still looking to you for leadership.

That’s why you need to support the new leader even more.

Give the next team leader everything you have. Don’t hold back. As soon as you hold back, you put your whole team at risk for more trouble.

Success isn’t a zero-sum game. Many times we see our losses as another’s gain, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In our example, Dana could have bemoaned her situation and slacked after getting replaced. However, she did the right thing and gave the next team leader everything she had.

It’s not easy to do that. But it is the right thing to do.

Conclusion

The moral here is that everything isn’t as it seems. If we’re mad at someone at work because of something, then we’re usually missing something.

Get to know your people, and they’ll work hard for you. Make sure you have open communication with the people you serve.

How would you have handled this situation? Let me know in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!

For a book review on Turn the Ship Around! by David Marquet, click here.

6 thoughts on “How to Improve Communication in the Workplace”

  1. Fran says:

    I believe a really, really important part of communication is learning to listen.  It’s pretty obvious that Dana’s boss was not listening to her or to other team members.  We need to know both sides of a story before making any kind of decision that will affect the outcome. If we are not willing to listen, why should we be expected to be heard?

    1. Robert says:

      Fran,

      I absolutely agree with what you’re saying! It’s a fine line we have to walk but listening is paramount in the workplace. That’ll help build trust as well. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Robert

  2. Charmaine says:

    Hi,
    I was attracted to this website because of the unusual name ‘leadership brown bag’. I find the post on how to improve communication in the workplace is so relevant today. Many leaders do not take the time to get to know who they are working with. They forget that they are the servants and so they lose the respect of their subordinates.

    I love your stories!

    Charmaine

    1. Robert says:

      Charmaine,

      I’m glad you liked the name of the website! Communication is so important today, as you said. Thank you for your comment!

      Robert

  3. Charmaine says:

    I was curious about this website because of the name “Leadership brown bag”. The page on ‘how to improve communication’ is interesting because it is important for leaders to know the people who they are working with. Your website pointed out that it is crucial for leaders to realize that they are servants. Many leaders forget this and eventually they lose the respect of those who they lead.

    I must say that the stories make your website come alive. That is what is attractive to me. Please keep up the good work. 

    Charmaine

    1. Robert says:

      Charmaine,

      I’m glad you liked the article! And you’re right, it’s important for leaders to properly communicate with their teams. If you have a story to tell, I’d be happy to hear it! Thank you for your comment.

      Robert

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