By Katy Tynan
Actions speak louder than words. We’ve all been told that communication is about more than what we say. And while that’s true, communication also goes far beyond just what we say and what we do. Let’s take a look at all of the elements that make up communication in the workplace, using a familiar framework.
When we’re delivering information, whether it’s giving feedback, delegating a task, updating a status, leading a meeting, or just having a casual conversation, the first thing to think about is the audience. Who is providing information, and who is receiving it? One of the most obvious examples of this is when we give feedback.
Praise in public, correct in private. That’s one of the golden rules of management. When you want to give someone positive feedback, or thank them for doing a great job, it’s a good thing to share that information with the whole team. However when you’re providing constructive feedback or correcting a team member, that’s best done in private, one-on-one.
The ‘what’ of communication is the message you’re trying to convey. What information do you have that you need to share? One of the mistakes that new leaders often make is that they don’t seek out all the information they need before responding or reacting. For example, let’s say that you’re managing a team of customer support representatives. A client escalates a call to you, and tells you that they’ve had a terrible experience, and that the person they spoke to was rude.
What should you do in this case? Should you immediately go and reprimand the representative in question? Of course not! You don’t have all the facts yet. The first step is always to gather the details, so you have as much information as you can in order to understand what really happened. If your team is part of a call center, you might be able to listen to the call in question, and here how things escalated. You should also go talk to the representative and ask them to tell their side of the story. You might also ask if others have worked with this particular customer before, and try to understand the history of the relationship.
Once you have gathered your information, you can take a look at what you know, and decide what you want to say, and who you want to say it to.
Timing is everything. If you want to make sure your message has the best chance of being heard, understood, and acted on, it’s important to think about when you deliver it. While there is no universal good time to communicate, some times are clearly better than others. If we think about the example we just discussed, with the customer service representative, when might be a good time to ask her about the tough call?
Delivering the feedback right away is not a bad choice, but it may not give you the time you need to gather all the information about the issue. With that said, as a rule of thumb, it’s always better to give feedback as close to the time of the situation as possible.
Communicating at the end of the work day is risky. Often people have commitments after work, such as picking their kids up from child care, or catching a train to get home. People are also often tired at the end of the day, and it’s tough to remember and process constructive feedback when you’re in that state.
Waiting for a one-on-one is a good idea if the issue is not urgent, and if you plan to combine this feedback with other examples of both positive and constructive points. Using this example as a coaching point can be a productive way to help someone figure out new strategies for dealing with tough customers.
The final option of waiting for an annual review is not a good choice. Saving up feedback for a once-a-year session won’t help your team member grow and develop. Conversations about performance need to be ongoing in order to be effective.
As you can see, there’s not a single, clear answer to the question of when you should communicate feedback to your team members. But there are some guidelines you can follow. First, you should give yourself enough time to gather all the details. Second, you should choose the time when you think the person who is receiving the feedback will be in the best position to listen and consider. And finally, you need to think about the urgency of the situation, and whether you need to communicate the information immediately, regardless of whether it’s exactly the right time.
Picking the right place to communicate is just as important as choosing the right time. And by place, I don’t necessarily mean where you are standing. The ‘where’ of communication is about what tool you use to deliver your message. Should you deliver it in person? On the phone? In an email? By social media?
All of these answers could be correct depending on the message you’re trying to convey. It’s easy to recognize when the medium has gone wrong. Would you fire someone using a text message? Absolutely not! Yet many new managers tend to have a preferred method of communication, and they fall back to that medium for all communication, even when it may make things harder.
Communicating in person gives you lots of data about how the person you are talking to is receiving your feedback. You can see their body language, and they can see yours. You can choose the venue (your office, a conference room, a café, etc.), which allows you to set the tone for the conversation. Because of all of these factors, communicating face to face can be a powerful method of delivering information.
But when is it not the best choice? There are a variety of scenarios where communicating face to face may not be the ideal solution. Here are just a few examples:
Each medium of communication has its pros and cons. Some people are uncomfortable being put on the spot in a conversation, or struggle to speak in front of groups. Email can be a challenge because it doesn’t convey tone of voice. As you think about communicating, and making sure your point is getting across, it’s worth being aware of your own communication habits, and asking yourself whether that is the right tool to use in this specific scenario.
Purpose is at the root of all leadership communication. Casual conversations help you get to know your team members better, which helps you build a strong relationship with each person on the team. Coming together for a whiteboard session allows you to leverage your teams expertise to solve problems, and find a path forward. Meetings give you the opportunity to share information, and coordinate your collaboration. One-on-one sessions allow you to share feedback and coach each member of your team to help them develop and grow as an individual.
A simple way to think about all of these elements of communication is to take a look at this sentence:
Why are you telling me this now?
Each underlined word is an element in the who, what, where, when, why, and how of communication. As you think about delivering any type of message as a manager, ask yourself this question, and see if you can answer each of the elements before you hit send on your email, pick up the phone, or schedule a meeting.
Great communication doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of considering all the elements, including the audience, the message, the medium, the timing, and the tone, to be effective. Clear communication is the key to creating an accountable, collaborative environment. It’s also an important tool for engaging team members, as we’ll explore in the next section.