Communication skills are often undervalued in the workplace. If your business has hit a roadblock, it's time to improve communication.
What makes a business successful? A good idea, talented staff and relentless refusal to accept failure are all sound business qualities; the most important characteristic of success is something that you can improve starting today with no new tools, employees, or up-front investment: the ability to communicate effectively.
While some are blessed with the ability to communicate well, most of us (and our businesses) suffer from at least one of three areas of communication breakdown. Here are practical tips to improve workplace communication if you or your business wants to be wildly successful.
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Being an expert in your craft and staying focused on the task at hand is great, but in order to be really successful as a professional in a knowledge economy, one must excel at communicating with their coworkers.
Ask for help. Show your coworkers what you’re working on and then ask for their input on things they’d improve. Not only can you learn a lot from the other smart people around you, but you’re showing the team that you don’t see yourself as a lone wolf and instead are willing to be a part of a team. Those who keep their heads down for 40 hours a week or don’t show any interest in discussions simply don’t make as much money or work on teams as great as those who do.
Share. It’s not what you know, but what you share that makes you an expert. Clasping tightly onto knowledge is a job security ploy of the 20th century. In today’s world, successful thought-leaders prove their expertise to those around them. The best way to show you’re an expert is to use your genius to help others including those outside your departments. Not only will people remember you come performance review time (which is an added bonus), but you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll be at your job when you invest time in elevating the performance of your peers.
Conscript Allies: Building alliances are crucial to effective communication. I’m not talking about gathering allies for the sake of winning political office battles or shielding yourself from reprimand by getting cozy with key players, but the art of conveying your ideas in such a way that builds a critical mass of support for action. Good communicators can inspire people to want to sponsor an initiative that would otherwise be quickly discarded. The best way to form alliances around projects is to present well-researched data that highlights an area of need, an insightful hypothesis solution, and a model for tracking success or failure. Tell a story which resonates with the stakeholder on how it benefits her needs. Approaching colleagues and key decision-makers in this manner is the most effective way to communicate importance and receive buy-in for crucial priorities.
While interpersonal communication is important for success at the individual level, corporate communication is crucial to ensure that departments cooperate in unison, projects are executed efficiently within budget, and the company culture helps create success, not destroy it. Here are three critical areas of corporate communication that great companies excel at:
Listen. Leaders are often strong on speak and light on listen. This is a really bad quality for those responsible for the livelihoods of those who work for them. Your sales team is positioning your product directly to your customers. Do you think they may have some valuable insight into what the market actually needs? Listen to your employees for all kinds of useful improvements you can implement at your office. This does not necessarily mean acting on every one of their impulses, but instead being a servant leader will go a long ways in creating an environment that employees feel comfortable being creative in. All of this is huge in retaining top talent and building something that makes a difference in the world.
Practice what you preach. Many in leadership think proper communication is simply telling a group what they should do, but talking does not necessarily indicate that you’re communicating. In fact, your actions speak much louder than words. If you want people to think you run a data-driven company, the projects you prioritize and deliver should be those that are validated by data. Companies who value social media should see their leaders actively engaging with and growing their social footprints while also deftly promoting branded content. Similarly, you can’t call yourself a technology company while separating your business plan from your technology plan. A company must be conscientious of not communicating false signals to its employees, and being acutely aware of the alignment of actions and words does that.
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Transparency. Projects that do well are those that are open for all to examine, understand and participate. Customer support should understand the details of a project because they will be dealing with angry people when the product doesn’t work. Siloing a project to just a team or two will stunt the success of the product in the market and you’ll end up spending lots of time fixing problems that could have been identified had all of the key stakeholders had a clear understanding of the project’s details.
Share (real) performance figures with the company. Employees put lots of work (and sometimes tears) into getting products in the hands of customers so it’s only natural that they want to know how their work is performing. Everyone is in this together so be honest and share both good and bad performance data. Smart people have great bullshit detectors so feeding them phony or massaged data indicating only a rosy outlook is a great way to kill trust.
If your company has mastered the above two areas of communication, chances are they’ll nail this one too, however many companies fail because they simply haven’t mastered the art of communication with the marketplace.
Setting the stage. All successful products have well-planned Go-To Market strategies which, among many benefits, involve identifying the market segment you’re targeting and the specific problem you’re trying to solve for them. The message you send to the marketplace needs to be well communicated throughout the company so everyone from marketing to customer support are on the same page upon launch. If your messaging doesn’t make sense internally or to reporters, don’t expect it to be clear for your customers either.
Telling a story. These days, businesses have to find a way to connect to their customers. The best way to do this is tell a narrative which contextualizes your brand values and acts as a relationship-building tool. The best stories show that you understand the needs of the customer and are best suited to solve their problems. Customers want to feel an emotional connection with those they do business with and no longer have patience to be preached to about a product’s stats.
Clearly, communication is the fabric that permeates every human interaction, project, story and company’s culture. Simply knowing your craft or product alone is not enough to succeed in the world. Open up a social network like Yammer to encourage knowledge sharing within your group. Notify your customers well in advance of major feature changes so they understand what you’re trying to do and how that impacts their experience. Find a way to make a deep connection with your target market. Show your employees the financial reasons why you’re unable to give them bonuses this quarter. Don’t sit on bad news or be afraid to give constructive criticism. Remember, communication is a power that must be practiced daily on multiple levels if we want to improve as employees, corporate leaders, companies and humans.