How to Get Out of the Way of Your Message So It’s Clear

communication, MessageAs a CEO, I’ve always believed that excellent communication channels and a clear message will alleviate many, if not most, of the problems that exist between management and staff.

I’ve seen it far too often … managers take communication with their staff for granted. They devote their energies upwards by catering to their superiors. Their focus swings too far towards big-picture efforts, and they communicate top-down. Eventually, they can grow distant from their front line staff and day-to-day operations. In the process, they fail to take their team’s pulse and solicit honest and constructive feedback.

Nothing good comes from miscommunication

It’s an old story in business. In organizations without honest and open communication, managers assume they can’t trust what gets back to them. Employees worry that any questions or criticism will place their jobs in peril. Management and staff become more like combatants than partners in the same cause. Each side politely smiles and engages in small talk, all while warily eying the other, neither saying what they’re truly thinking.

In this environment, words and gestures take on great meaning. Without understanding the history, aspirations and organizational barriers weighing on their employees, managers risk being misinterpreted.

Even more, managers must understand how they—as both company representatives and flawed individuals—are perceived. Otherwise, an innocent act can easily be minunderstood.

For example, in response to a competitive threat, management quickly allocates resources to combat the situation, including moving employees to other responsibilities. However, their employees fault them for failing to solicit their opinions or weigh alternatives and consequences. Here, management may consider themselves decisive, but their reports may view them as isolated.

Employees bring their personal experience, including baggage and bias, with them to work. No surprise there. So it’s equally understandable that messages—particularly context and delivery—can sometimes tear open old wounds. So how do you reduce the potential for your message being distorted or symbolizing everything wrong (real or perceived) with your operation?

Three things you can start today to make sure your message is clear:

  1. Communicate face-to-face

Remember that game we played as kids when we’d sit in a big circle and the first person whispered something to the next person? Then that person would whisper the same thing to the next person? And it would go on until it got to the last person who would announce it to everyone? Remember how the last message was usually a million miles away in meaning from the original statement? It’s no different as adults. Announcements like major changes require two-way communication.

It’s easy to misinterpret words and intentions, particularly without tone and body language to reinforce them. Fact is, how you deliver the message is a message in itself. Moreover, physical distance and verbal one-sidedness can potentially make your message ominous or insulting.

  1. Know your people

There are times when you have to be tough and you cannot be swayed by what people think. Sometimes the right decisions are not the popular ones. Or easy ones. But, there’s a definite time and place for that. When formulating your message, anticipate how your team will react and what questions they’ll have. Know what issues are important to the collective group as well as the key personalities in your department. Getting those strong personalities on your side can make or break you. Address both of them early, so they don’t assume the worst.

Most importantly, take a serious look at your own perceptions. For example, do you view your people as partners—or simply a means to an end? If it’s the latter, it’s undoubtedly seeping into your messages—and your employees have already picked up on it.

  1. Be open about issues as much as possible

Unresolved issues often lead managers and employees to perceive situations differently. Managers may be oblivious to issues plaguing their department—or be a root cause behind them. When issues aren’t addressed—or inefficient and ineffective practices are treated as untouchable (“We’ve always done it that way”)—you create an environment where any message is tainted by the messenger. Clear the air. Accept the feedback as an opportunity to make things better and not as a personal attack. Then, act on it.

Someday you’ll need your employees’ buy-in when the stakes are higher. Create an atmosphere where everyone’s message is understood for what it is, and not misinterpreted according to what might be.

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