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By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership


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Jan 12

Effective Communication in the Workplace

by Kelly Riggs

How would you grade the quality of communication at your company?

The vast majority of executive teams I have worked with struggle to give themselves a “6” on a scale of 1-to-10. Not surprisingly, employees aren’t nearly that generous.

It is, in fact, an age-old problem. I have yet to see the organization that doesn’t complain about the prevalence of inadequate, inconsistent, or incomplete communication. And the real fun starts when you ask leadership when they are going to fix the problem.

Blank stares are fairly common.

Of course, basic communication skills are a part of the problem. Data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy indicates that only about one-third of college graduates have a high-level of proficiency in reading and writing, while almost two-out-of-every-ten graduates have only basic or below-basic proficiency in reading and writing. The rest, about half of all graduates, fall somewhere in the gray area called “intermediate” proficiency.

But that’s just reading and writing.

While the ability to read well and pen effective business correspondence is critically important in the workplace, to limit communication to reading and writing is to completely miss the boat. It’s an issue, of course, but improving workplace communication is about transmitting critical messages from the top of the organization to the bottom, from one department to another, and from team-to-team, in ways that create confidence and engage employees.

The reality is that effective communication — or the lack of effective communication — is a leadership issue, but even that is a little vague, isn’t it? The other thing I hear a lot is, “Everyone is responsible for communication,” but that’s a bad answer, too, and it doesn’t take much to figure out why.

The crazy thing about communication is that we have more tools than every before to facilitate workplace communication, but from most perspectives, workplace communication may be worse than ever. One reason is the perception that better emails or more meetings are the answer to the communication problem.

Leaders just don’t get it.

Help Wanted: The Parts of Communication Managers Don’t Understand

Ten minutes with a group of employees anywhere below the executive or ownership level will quickly uncover of host of unresolved communication issues.

However, a bit of digging usually reveals that what employees are really concerned about is NOT how poorly their immediate supervisors or managers assign job tasks, set deadlines, or update projects. Instead, what makes employees crazy is the lack of communication in these areas:

  1. Understanding the “big picture” — company strategy and direction
  2. Changes that get implemented without explanation, training, or input
  3. Management actions that are inconsistent with announced intentions
  4. Failure to follow through on stated initiatives

While there are plenty specific communication skills that the average manager usually has yet to master – setting expectations, giving praise and encouragement, and providing effective feedback are good examples – it is these four items that tend to create the most problems for employees.

The challenge is that middle management is the weakest link in an organization. These managers are often put in the worst kind of position, forced to manage employees with ridiculously incomplete information from above.

They often receive no training relative to leadership, communication, or performance management. In most cases, they fill a management role without any real control over the communication challenges they face.

To be clear, effective communication in the workplace begins with senior leaders, but the most critical aspect of improving communication is to provide consistent leadership AND communication training for the most critical link in the corporate organization – the middle manager.

Unless, of course, a “6” is fine with you.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”