How to Improve Business Communications
8 quick tips for managers
Effective business communication leadership includes analyzing our own logic and the logic of others as we write, speak, listen and read. There is a bit of a balancing act—exhibiting enough patience for contributions, while moving project objectives along. We must also be able to evaluate decisions quickly, determining if they are based on good information, with solid reasoning and evaluation. At the same time, take team building, collaboration and inclusiveness of diverse voices into consideration.
Before jumping into the team side of communications, let’s look at the leadership side.
Being a good leader
Both consultive and participative styles of leadership work well with teams. The consultive style is task oriented while the participative style is more goal oriented, but in both the leader acts in a facilitator role with teams providing input for decision making.
So how does one be a good facilitator? Whether meeting in person or in a Zoom group, it’s a good idea to set a few ground rules. These include respecting everyone’s contribution, letting only one person speak at a time, and avoiding disparaging comments directed at a person or idea.
Avoid the temptation to talk too much, but encourage others to speak up by asking questions. If conversations get sidetracked, intervene and guide the conversation back to the agenda topic. If energy levels are flagging, it might be time to take a short break.
Most of all, listen actively, and remain interested and engaged in the conversation, setting a good example for other participants. Call on someone specifically and ask their opinion if they are not taking part. Watch for and close any side conversations. This can be especially prevalent in online meetings, but can be controlled in meeting settings. An alternate way to engage people that don’t want to speak up is to do a quick online poll. Polls are incorporated into platforms like Zoom, and there are also many free poll apps like Doodle.
Be prepared and informed for decision-making
No matter how busy the person in charge of meeting is, they need to come prepared and encourage the same of team members. It’s problematic when the leader or others in the group have not read pertinent reports, agenda and other meeting notes ahead of time. Not only does it take time for people to catch up, but it creates different levels of knowledge about topics, and discussions risk drifting from facts that bear on the problem the group is trying to solve.
At the beginning of the meeting, run through the objectives and agenda. Make sure that everyone understands their role and what the group is seeking to achieve. Follow the agenda and monitor timing. You can do a quick summary at the end of each agenda item, then an overall review at the end, including action items and agreements, emphasizing what people achieved and next steps.
People are diverse, complex beings. Ideally, a group will exhibit cooperative and open-minded behaviors, maintain group goals as a priority and employ active listening and clarification of main points. An effective group leader fosters these positive behaviors and encourages diverse participation, including looking at problems from different angles and asking team members to come up with alternate solutions.
There are a few leadership techniques I have learned that are effective in improving group workplace communications. Here are my top eight tips:
1. Speak simply and clearly. In a group, there are likely to be different competencies and levels of understanding. Large meetings may include departments with different skill sets, such as administrative and technical. For some workers in the group, English may not be their native language. The book Great Presenters suggests using the most common language without technical jargon, and asking others to do the same. This will increase understanding across diverse team members.
2. Consider your audience: Communicating with a group of seniors is going to differ from a group of millennials. For example, seniors experience sensory changes over time, affecting their ability to absorb information. According to AARP, having face-to-face meetings in well-lit, quiet rooms are ways to improve communications with this demographic. Millennials, those born between 1982 and 1994, grew up in the digital age and respond well to short, meaningful communications. Online team collaborations via WebEx or a mobile app may be more productive for this group. Young or old, it is never appropriate to joke about age in workplace communications.
3. Try an ice breaker. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where staff sits like statues and no one speaks up, an ice breaker will warm up a meeting and encourage reflection and sharing. One of my favorites is “One thing most people don’t know about me.” Not only does this get people talking, the group learns interesting things about each other, which supports team building.
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4. Achieve deadlines by group inclusion. Consider the strengths of your team and be realistic about determining how long tasks will take. Setting up a timeline with milestones that all involved can access will show team success towards goals. Communicating when milestones are achieved will increase motivation.
5. Max three texts on an issue. While it’s easier and quicker to send texts or emails, live one-on-one communication is essential, especially when faced with critical issues. It’s hard to judge emotional intelligence—tone and context—in a text or email, and messages can end up being more reactive when enveloped in a digital shield. Anthony Tjan writes in Harvard Business Review that sending endless texts prolongs the debate, delaying problem resolution, so if caught in a string of messages, consider picking up the phone or walking over to the sender’s office.
6. Regular, direct communication. Most of us have gotten more adept at virtual communication, especially since the pandemic. However, don’t give up on the benefits of direct communication, either in person or face to face. Leadership coach Jill Malleck says it well: “(Direct communication) lowers the possibility of misunderstanding. It increases the level of trust in a relationship. It protects something more important than the cost of momentary discomfort–it protects the truth.” Though hard for most people, use direct communication when tackling sensitive or difficult subjects.
7. Inclusive conversations. Value diverse opinions and people. Promote different ideas, challenge team members to offer alternative views, support disagreement, and encourage broad participation. Contribute ideas and seek information. Willingly risk ideas and opinions, ask for constructive criticism, ask for opinions, support participation, and discourage negative evaluation.
8. Effective meeting wrap-ups. A good story has a beginning, middle and end, and meetings should too. Before the meeting wraps, clarify and reiterate agreements made or work goals set. Acknowledge and appreciate the time dedicated by the team. According to Ross McCammon, author of “Happy Endings,” it is also valuable to listen to participants as they leave the room. McCammon observes that sometimes the best ideas surface after a meeting ends as people are preparing to leave the room, whether in person or virtually. You and everyone else become re-humanized after closing a work session. Participants return to the context of real life, and a more creative headspace.
There are powerful incentives for businesses to improve communication. Productivity increases when effective internal communication strategies are in place, which directly enhances the bottom line. There is increased employee engagement which can lead to happier customers and better staff retention. No matter if it is a one-on-one conversation, or a large group meeting online with dispersed team members, achieve improved communication with planning, thoughtful leadership and follow-through.