Earlier in my management career, a few courageous employees approached my office with looks of determination and resolve on their faces and what seemed like linked arms blocking my exit from the door. (This was the year before my boss congratulated me for showing everyone I wasn’t just a robot. I think that was a backhanded compliment.)
Curious and maybe just a bit on edge, I asked them how I could help. The visibly nervous spokesperson cleared her throat and said, “We want to talk with you about communication. Specifically, how difficult you are to communicate with or even approach.”
While not certain, I believe I saw someone in the back row of this group with a pitchfork, and I could smell the odor of kerosene emanating from unlit torches the group members were holding. They had my attention. (OK, this last part was fictional—no pitchforks or torches, but this group meant business, and for once, I was all ears.)
It turns out; I had a few communication quirks that were adding stress and complexity to the working environment.
- I was intense. (Guilty.)
- I often cut people off once I gained the gist of their point. (Unfortunately, guilty.)
- I displayed little patience with detail. (Guilty and proud of it at that moment!)
- I displayed no patience whatsoever when someone had a problem, and they were looking for ideas. (Hmmm, what happened to never show up in the boss’s office with a problem you don’t have a solution for? Guilty, and not convinced I was in the wrong.)
- People were so intimidated by me, that when there was a crisis, they were worried I would harm the messenger, so they avoided me when I should have been consulted. Apparently, a person who delivered bad news to me suggested it created an awkward encounter. (Sadly, guilty.)
Yes, I was guilty on all counts of communication malfeasance, although I wasn’t going to give ground on the show-up-with-solutions issue. Ultimately, I understood the perception that I was tough to communicate with was their reality, and I respected the group’s collective courage in raising the issue. Also, they outnumbered me.
After encouraging them to disarm and unlink arms, we sat down and talked about our workplace environment and how to strengthen our mutual communication effectiveness. I offered a little context for some of my habits as well.
I confessed to being a person who found what I deemed to be excessive detail to be somewhat more painful than holding red-hot coals in my hands. I worked hard to always frame my messages to my boss and to respect her time, and I expected the same in return. Of course, I had not shared my expectations, which was a valid problem and a good point in their case against me.
Cutting people off and offering my six ideas that they had not thought of was just rude and I admitted as much. Hey, human here. I vowed to reform.
I explained my perspective on showing up with ideas in the face of a problem, and I gained acknowledgment that I was more right than wrong.
I proposed, and we mutually developed our departmental communication values to help guide our behaviors. The exercise was cathartic, and all of us concluded we had work to do to strengthen our individual communication approaches.
Since that point in time, I’ve drawn on this lesson and these commonsense but not common-place values for my work and for executive coaching clients who have a bit too much of my earlier style in them. I’ve also suggested the approach (minus the march, linked arms, pitchforks, and torches) to individuals who describe having a boss who is a pain in the neck to communicate with on a daily basis.
Here’s the original protocol as outlined on that particular day. Use it to prompt some thoughts of your own as you strive to strengthen your communication effectiveness with your colleagues and bosses.
8 Values to Improve Communication
1. We acknowledge that there is nothing more important to master than our ability to effectively communicate with each other in pursuit of advancing organizational and individual goals.
2. We agree that every person has a unique communication style with distinct preferences and that we must mutually flex to accommodate our respective styles. Those who describe issues in detail must strive for brevity, and those who have little tolerance for detail must exercise patience.
3. Listening is the heart of effective communication, and we commit to focusing on the person or people striving to communicate with us at every encounter.
4. Patience is a virtue and questions are the best way to gain clarity. If we don’t understand a topic or perceive our message is not being received, we commit to asking questions on the spot to gain mutual clarity.
5. We commit to striving to keep our messages clear and concise. We understand that if the other party wants additional information beyond the core message, they will ask questions.
6. We agree to not present a problem without thinking through and offering solutions.
7. We commit to not personalizing differences of opinion, but rather, to draw upon these values and mutually work to identify and develop solutions that focus on the best interests of the business and our customers.
8. Managers understand and commit to modeling these behaviors for the broader staff in every interaction.
It is possible I slightly exaggerated the march on my office, described above. Nonetheless, a group of employees did raise the communication challenges, and we did indeed work together to develop, teach, and model the values outlined above.
These communication values became a core part of our culture and thanks to the group’s courage, I learned some critical management lessons. Oh, and the value describing how to resolve differences of opinion kept us from imploding during some particularly challenging times in the business.
Common sense? Yes. Commonplace? No so much. That’s too bad because 100 percent of all business problems contain or are caused by a communication issue somewhere. Perhaps it’s time to bring these common sense communication values to life in your organization.