Seven Mistakes Communications Managers Make

Having good communication skills is necessary in a business environment where, between emails, phone calls and face-to-face interactions, there’s a lot of potential for poor communications within an organization.

It’s up to managers, in particular, to effectively explain changes to company policies, business strategies, to communicate the appropriate values, and to positively reinforce quality performance amongst lower-level management teams and employees.

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However, as Boris Groysberg notes in Why poor communication kills big companies, poor communications practices are still relatively widespread. Many problems, such as those experienced by Nokia, Thai Airways, British Petroleum and Star Princess Cruise Lines, could have been prevented if leadership and management had had more effective communications strategies, including actively encouraging feedback and promoting “dialogue, instead of monologue.”

“Every leader keenly understands the consequences of taking a lax approach to financial management. And most leaders today recognise how dangerous it can be to take a lax approach to people management. But how many leaders appreciate the risks that come with taking a lax approach to communication management — with failing to manage the way that ideas and information flows within their organisation?”

Still, says, Stever Robbins, top ten iTunes business podcaster and host of The Get-it-Done Guy, the most errors can be avoided. He gives his list of  seven common communication mistakes managers make:

1. Making controversial announcements without doing groundwork first. Controversial announcements can generate anxieties amongst employees. Robbins says that managers must effectively address the issue, be it a reorganization, or the departure of vital team members, by conveying empathy and sharing the “scenario you expect to unfold,” as a result of the announcements.

“Any controversial decision can engender rumors, anxiety, and resistance,” Robbins says. “So rather than announcing a controversial decision to an entire group, prep people one-on-one. Learn who will object, and why.”

2. Lying. Being consistent and maintaining trust is important, says Robbins, especially where concerning confidential or sensitive information.

Some lies or partial truths are well-intentioned. Certain topics must remain confidential while they’re under discussion. But be careful how you keep secrets. If people know you’ve lied, you will lose their trust forever. A start-up company’s controller watched the CFO lie to members of other departments and subsequently began to doubt the CFO’s sincerity. He began looking for a new job with a boss whose intentions he could trust. In that instance, lying cost the company a valuable employee.

Robbins says that it’s better to remain silent or to give responses like “I’m not free to comment” or “I can’t answer that fully right now,” that don’t indicate what you know, than to be caught in a lie.

3. Ignoring the realities of power. The reality of power, says Robbins, is that problems tend to be filtered out and softened by messengers as they work their way up the corporate hierarchy, meaning that an honest assessment of what’s really wrong is likely to not make it to the top.

Conversely, messages are magnified as they travel down the hierarchy. If you look pained during a presentation, everyone will “know” you hated the presentation (or worse — the presenter). No one will think to blame the pastrami sandwich you ate too fast before you came to the meeting. Jokes are especially dangerous. When the managing director of a consulting firm joked, “If you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday,” his project team wasn’t sure what to do. One said, “We were pretty sure he was joking, but. . .”

Cushioning the truth and ignoring critical or important information can lead to devastating consequences, as Groysberg notes in the cases of Enron and BP.

“A scholarly investigation into the problems that led to Enron’s collapse pinpointed several “communication-based leader responsibilities” that senior managers failed to meet — responsibilities such as “communicating appropriate values” and “maintaining openness to signs of problems.”

“The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, in April 2010, resulted in a massive crisis for BP and its partners. Among the key factors that contributed to the disaster were “poor communications” and a failure “to share important information,” according to a report on the White House commission that studied the incident.”

Robbins says the best way to avoid the “realities of power” is to seek out bad news in earnest and with appreciation. “Put a lid on rumors by using plain, simple language,” He says. “End meetings by reviewing your reactions and next steps. “I value your analysis, Chris. The sales trend is disturbing. Let’s follow up on Wednesday.””

4. Underestimating your audience’s intelligence. Robbins says to not undervalue what skills teams can contribute to confronting the issues and pressures a company might be facing. He says teams have likely already been well aware of the problems that many managers try to “gloss over” or avoid. However, promoting a more engaged and intellectually honest dialogue can also lead to finding new solutions for those problems by tapping into their knowledge base and feedback.

It’s tempting to gloss over issues because “people won’t understand.” Why explain a reorganization when you can simply say, “Here’s the new org chart”? But that’s a cop-out. Front-line employees may not be masters of organizational design, but they deserve to know the rationale behind changes that affect their lives. If you think your people won’t understand something, remember it’s your job to explain it to them.

5. Confusing process with outcome. “In goal-setting, compensation, and evaluation,” says Robbins,  “it’s easy to confuse process with outcome.” Promising employees the benefits of uncertain outcomes can breed resentment.

You promise your team a 7% raise, but then the board, concerned about the downturn, caps raises at 3%. You fight like mad to raise the number, and you compromise on 4%. But your people don’t appreciate it. In fact, they’re downright resentful. How could they be so insensitive to all your hard work?

Simple. Your hard work was process, and you promised them an outcome. You want them to appreciate how hard you tried, but they wanted a specific result. Since they didn’t get it, they can’t see past that fact. You want people to value you for your hard work. But when evaluating others, it’s always easier to judge outcomes. Most organizations penalize employees for the wrong outcome, even if they follow the right process. Perversely, others are rewarded for the right outcome, even when they flout the rules about process.

6. Using inappropriate forms of communication. This point emphasizes the importance of understanding the individual communications needs of employees, some of whom might be better listeners and some might be better readers. Robbins says not to be afraid to ask how it is people prefer to receive information. A face-to-face conversation may be more suitable for relating information or addressing concerns over putting it in writing, which can be easily misconstrued.

“If you’re squirming while reading an e-mail, leave your computer and deal with the situation in person or by telephone.

At the same time, phone calls and face-to-face meetings are inefficient ways to disseminate information, but great for discussing nuanced issues. You can respond directly to the listener’s reaction, and you can use your tone of voice and facial expressions to control your message. “I’m sure you did a great job” could be read sarcastically in an e-mail, but the same words can be delivered sincerely in person with the right tone of voice.”

Robbins also points out in Choosing How to Communicate, that writing is permanent. Emails, instant messages and status updates don’t disappear, as they can be saved and archived. He says it is important to choose the mode of communication carefully, and to opt with in person meetings for the emotional messages, such as performance reviews, hiring and firing.

7. Ignoring acts of omission. What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. This can include failing to keep team members up to speed about policy changes, not acknowledging good work, and not clearly communicating the overall vision and goals of the company.

“By their very nature, mistakes of omission are hard to uncover. Review your major goals and the communication that’s needed to support those goals. Ask what message may have been sent by your silence so far. And be willing to ask people, “What messages are you getting from me?””

As we all know, human communication is imperfect. However, in the workplace, where it is particularly important to align communications efforts with the strategic goals of the company, small mistakes can add up fast. It’s best to avoid the most common mistakes, in order to better manage to the flow of information and create a more engaged and healthy work environment.

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