Can You Hear Me Now?

Figuring out the best line of communication can ease a lot of friction.

As a manager, what kind of communicator are you? Are you a face-to-face type of person, preferring to have employees stop by your office to touch base? Or are you more of a phone and voicemail boss, managing via your cell phone as you dart around to various meetings? Maybe you're an Internet age communicator -- an e-mailer and texter. You like reading employees' questions and responding with the click-clack of your keyboard, rather than having them knock on your door or ring your line at potentially inconvenient times.

It's good to know which one you are. It's also good to know how employees like to communicate with you. All is well if neither of you minds the other peeking into his office or cubicle with a quick question, or if you would both be just fine never seeing each other or hearing one another's voices. Mano a mano, e-mail a e-mail.

Figuring this out is not only for compatibility testing purposes. Crossed communication wires can prevent employees from getting the information they need from you to do their jobs well and can block your view of what's going on in your realm of responsibility.

Indeed, what if you don't click? What if you're an e-mail manager but an employee is a knock-knock-can-I-come-in-er? You could close your door and turn up the music, but the social butterfly employee might be less responsive to your requests if you block his preferred communication avenue. What if an employee is a cell phone fan but you hardly ever check your voicemail?

Sometimes, workers have two communication standards -- one for their bosses and one for their co-workers. They might answer the phone when you call, but they never do when it's their co-workers. They might not constantly show up at your office door, but they are frequently appearing behind their co-workers with a tap on the cubicle window -- much to the chagrin of their e-mail-only colleagues. Often workers prefer to avoid conflict and simply put up with such annoyances rather than confront them.

That's where you can come in. Unless things are dysfunctional, you don't have to set a rule establishing which method everyone should use to communicate. The best rule could be no rule -- just understanding. Tell employees how you want to hear from them -- after you ask them how they want to hear from you. To prevent or resolve conflict among employees, encourage them to find out how everyone else likes to coordinate with their colleagues.

While you're at it, find out how clients, customers or stakeholders like to communicate too. Preferred methods have changed in recent years, with some people moving almost entirely to e-mail -- especially those who travel around with a BlackBerry or other mobile device. Others crave even more face-to-face meetings.

By phone, e-mail or in person, communication doesn't have to be a battle if it's an accommodation.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.