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How do we improve communication in the workplace?
Have you ever been frustrated when others don’t step up to support your great ideas? Or that you seem to continually ask (demand?? beg?….) to get important things done? While most of us are adept at telling employees and stakeholders what we want them to do, this isn’t always enough. Managers and leaders need to be proactive, and develop a communication strategy to secure the support they need to achieve their goals.
I have found that communication seems to be one of the biggest challenges in many and all types of organizations (private enterprise, public services and non-profit). These difficulties often become more apparent when dealing with complex issues and change. In my previous article on Change and Communication, I outlined some specific tactics that managers can use during change. I hope you will also read and apply these techniques in your workplace.
But here, I want to focus on a communication strategy for individual managers and leaders to build the influence necessary for achieving their goals. In our western society where the tradition hierarchical organizations are being replaced with flatter structures, managers and leaders may have less positional power. And while this requires a shift to build new skills in influence, I believe it can be a good thing for organizational development. It requires strategic thinking skills, and a proactive approach to relationship building. And it aligns with a results-based (versus the old “control”) approach to management.
Communication and Influence
What do I mean by influential leadership in this sense? Influence is about getting cooperation, regardless of your position of authority. This, in contrast to old fashioned control approach to management, where “you do what the boss tells you, or else!”
David Whetten and Kim Cameron describe the concept of Political Competence in their book Developing Management Skills (7th Edition, 2007) as – “out-in-the-open process of methodically mapping the political terrain, building coalitions and leading them to get your idea adopted.”
In his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, author Daniel Goleman describes the competency of influence as “wielding effective tactics for persuasion”. He further explains “People adept at influence are able to sense or even anticipate their audiences’ reaction to their message and can effectively carry everyone along toward an intended goal.”
The dual and changing role of managers
Managers are often in the middle, so to speak. We are responsible for our employees, but also accountable to our own supervisor and/or executive team. So, managers need to be communicating and building influence at various levels in the organization. And often there are other stakeholders (other departments, service providers, customers, investors…). Communication strategies need to consider these different perspectives and adapt messages accordingly.
As I mentioned earlier, managers and leaders often need to get cooperation from a wide range of people that they don’t supervise. Even with employees, we need to be cautious of using our position based authority. That can, at best, lead to mere compliance. And at worst – rebellion! By using a more positive, collaborative approach to gain influence with employees, we enable them to take on greater personal accountability and ultimately superior performance.
Also consider cultural differences with respect to hierarchy and power. That is, some countries and/or cultures have different tendencies towards authority, which Geert Hofestede identified as power distance in his work on dimensions of culture. Those cultures with a tendency for high power distance tend to follow the chain of command, and have more formal protocols between various levels in the organization. While those with lower power distance tend to have a flatter structure and less position based control.
Components of an Influence Building Communication Strategy
While there are many competencies involved in gaining influence, I will introduce my 4-point communication strategy to help this along.
Have a clear, concise and strategic message
Can you create and communicate a vision? If you have any doubts or murky areas, you likely won’t be able to convince others. If you are clear, you will be more likely to be able to adapt your message to different audiences at various times.
We often try to put too much detail into our messages (statistics, research, etc.). I know I often fall into this trap of trying too hard with too much information. So, we either drone on too long and bore our audience, or in my case, talk too fast with too many diverse ideas that they can’t follow.
We really need to work on distilling it down to the essence. Consider, what do we want people to DO because of this message? As Simon Sinek is famous for says – start with why! Let’s look at a simple example:
Say you want to implement a new order tracking system in your operations. Now you might be tempted to put up charts and graphs of how much more efficient and fast this new system is, how quickly it will show return on investment, etc. But consider – will that really get the buy in you seek? Perhaps a message such as:
Did you know that 20% of our orders are late being shipped to customers due to system errors? That just isn’t acceptable for a company that prides itself on customer service. We need to implement this new order tracking system to give our customers the service they expect and deserve.
Test your message out on different audiences – your family, friends, trusted colleagues. Do they get it? Can you re-frame or use different approaches to get your message across? Can you use different communication medium (visuals, video, stories…) for different audiences?
Understand your different audiences, and their motivation
Put your message into their language. For instance, your executive team may be most influenced by succeeding with their strategic plan, or other benchmarks defined by stakeholders. So, with communicating our vision above, you may say something like:
With 20% of our orders late due to system errors, we are at serious risk of losing customers and damaging our reputation for excellent customer service. As we know, it takes much greater investment to attract new customers than to retain existing ones. And re-building our reputation once lost is extremely difficult. Therefore, we need to implement this new order tracking system to maintain our reputation and retain our loyal customers.
Your employees may be most influenced by job security, or upward mobility, or work/life balance. So, you can customize messages around those issues. And don’t forget to consider cultural perspectives regarding power and influence!
The key is to understand the strong emotional drivers of your audience and build your message around that. And as Daniel Goleman points out – you must be able to gauge your audiences’ receptiveness to the message and adapt as necessary. So, if people look glazed over during your power point, perhaps switch to a story or personal example. Ask questions – get them involved!
Focus on the long run
Don’t wait until you have a critical issue that needs support. If you haven’t built the foundation of influence, it’s unlikely that any amount of begging is going to get you the results you need for next weeks deadline! Why not build a communication strategy into your strategic plan or yearly performance plan? Think about what needs to be achieved, and whom you will need support from. Learn about them. Get input to understand their needs. And think about the alignment between what you want from them, and what they might gain from you.
Professional Development and Continuous Improvement
As with other aspect of strategic leadership development, each of these strategies requires you to build your communication and influence skills. And while they are all important, perhaps start with the one that best aligns with your own strengths. We each have unique strengths. For some people, influence comes naturally. But for most of us – we need to work on it!
Build professional development into your communication strategy. This can include your own strategic thinking and management training, as well as building the skills of your work team. Remember that as an influential leader, developing and empowering others to implement your vision can reach much further than trying to do it all yourself.
Recognize and plan for the time that you need to implement your communication strategy. We often try to do this work off the side of our desk. But effective communication takes dedicated time and resources. As with other aspects of your strategic plan and/or performance plan – set incremental goals and evaluate often.
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