When I walk into almost any organization at the beginning of a consultancy project, I can be sure of one thing: communication will come at or near the top of any list of gripes. It is a "motherhood" issue against which few will argue. Everyone wants better communication within their team, between teams and across their organization. Better communication is seen as a solution to most of life's problems. And indeed better communication can help – but what are managers doing about it?
Many managers respond by pointing to their regular "team briefings" as a sign that they are already doing all they can to ensure effective communication. Having watched many of these briefings, I am sad to report that many such briefings consist of no more than a perfunctory description of issues and decisions dealt with elsewhere in the organization, a few "old chestnuts" that lead to a familiar pattern of frustration and inaction, and a request for questions from the team that signals the end of the meeting. Those who do speak usually respond only to the team leader or speak into thin air, ensuring either a series of dialogues or a jumble of comments rather than a true discussion. So, in many cases the "team briefing" fails to provide a forum for real interaction. It addresses the need for communication in a business team at only a superficial level.
One increasingly prevalent alternative is e-mail, which seems to have largely replaced the written "office circular" pasted on a notice board or sent from desk to desk with a circulation slip stapled to the corner. Indeed I have heard more than one manager respond to criticism of poor communication within his term by saying "what do you mean I never communicate? I send you e-mails every day" – and this to a colleague sitting less than ten metres away! E-mail is undoubtedly a useful tool. It is fast, cheap, provides a more permanent record than a conversation and can be sent to any number of colleagues in the same office or on another continent. With the growth of virtual teams it is indispensable. But does it solve the communication problem? Not always.
Most organizations in fact rely on much less formal forms of communication than e-mail or team briefings. The conversations while waiting for the photocopier, a shared table in the canteen, the chat over a pint on Friday night, all contribute to real-world communication. But these informal networks suffer from limitations too. They rely on personal relationships that are subject to the complexity of cliques, misunderstanding and outdated attitudes. In a team of 16 people there will be 120 relationships. It is unlikely that each one of these relationships will be equally strong, so although they are an important communication channel they will usually be subject to bottle-necks and exclusions. Think about your own experience – do you normally talk to the same person while having a pre-meeting coffee or do you find yourself talking to a different person each time? Chances are there will be a pattern of communication already established, right down to the topics of conversation. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, it just means that a team's informal communication will be heavily influenced by the nature of its members' relationships.
There are, however, some actions that managers can initiate to help to improve communication in their business teams. None of them require upgrading of your computer system, or longer meetings. Most in fact rely on a simple willingness to pay more attention to each other.
In any meeting there are three distinct elements: task, maintenance and process. Get the balance right and a meeting will be shorter, more lively and more effective too. Get the balance wrong and the meeting will drag on or follow its normal path to a dead end.
This is the business part of the meeting. It is the aspect most team leaders and chairpeople know most about because it includes defining a purpose for the meeting, setting an agenda, gathering information, analysing data, making decisions and sharing opinions. In a well run meeting this component should take about 85 per cent of the allocated time.
This element is often forgotten. It includes any aspect of the meeting that involves paying attention to relationships, individual comfort, or how people feel. Ensuring the room is suitable, that everyone can see everyone else, and that there is adequate fresh air and lighting are examples. So is taking time out from a meeting to deal with one another on a personal, rather than business level. While some people prefer to keep a very clear boundary between work and private life, there is much to be gained by recognizing that each of us is more than our job. Often, taking time to acknowledge this fact pays dividends.
For example, at a recent meeting I observed one team member seemed to be more agitated than normal and was not contributing his normal flow of task-related comments and suggestions. After a little while, someone asked him "What's the matter?" "Nothing" was the reply, "just that my daughter had a baby yesterday and I'm over the moon." Laughter and congratulations erupted and after a few minutes the whole team continued its meeting with renewed focus.
Whether it is easy for us to acknowledge our feelings or not, how we feel influences how we perform.
Be prepared to allocate about 10 per cent of a meeting to maintenance. Most of this will take place at the beginning and end of the meeting, but it may be necessary to take a break during a meeting to allow team members to look after their own needs.
This is the act of stepping back from the detail of the meeting to comment on how the meeting is unfolding. This requires facilitation skills and the use of feedback that describes rather than judges what is happening. Usually the people most involved in a discussion are the least aware of what is happening around them. A simple comment like "Jim, that's the third time you've interrupted Linda as she tried to speak" will draw Jim's attention to an aspect of his own behaviour of which he was probably unaware.
"Everyone wants better communication within their team, between teams and across their organization. Better communication is seen as a solution to most of life's problems. And indeed better communication can help - but what are managers doing about it?"
Increased awareness leads to greater choice, and the team develops its ability to self-regulate its behaviour. Naturally, using descriptive feedback requires practice and an understanding of its intent among the team. When this has been established, as little as 5 per cent of the total meeting time needs to be allocated to process. The benefits are greater participation, shorter meetings and an evolving team.
Any team that uses e-mail to maintain communication runs the risk of letting its ratio of electronic to human contact drop too low. My guess is that in a true virtual team, where team members are located in different offices or countries, at least 20 per cent of the communication needs to be personal, either face to face or at least by telephone. This basic level of live human contact can then sustain the bulk of electronic communication.
Additionally, remember the elements of task, maintenance and process just described. Make sure there is an element of maintenance in electronic communication – a little banter goes a long way to providing the type of communication that builds a stronger team. Likewise, occasionally consider how you are using e-mail. Have you inadvertently developed habits that get in the way of clear communication?
In teams where e-mail is used within the same office, back up important messages with face-to-face discussion. You may send the facts electronically but you will have no idea of the human impact of your message unless you speak with, and listen to, your colleagues. I recently heard of a manager sending a redundancy advice via e-mail, initially without any face to face follow up. The person on the receiving end was, naturally, upset, but what made matters worse was the impression that her supervisor did not care or was unwilling to meet her. A short meeting between the two did not change the facts of the redundancy, but did ease the impact on team morale and enable the individual an easier transition from the team.
Most of us recognize the need to "network" with colleagues in other departments and companies in order to help us stay in touch with developments. How often though do we remember that networking, like charity, begins at home? By creating formal and informal opportunities within a team for people to meet and learn more about each other, a manager is encouraging a greater willingness to share ideas and resources, based on stronger relationships within the team.
Vary the format of team meetings to include occasions where sub-groups, rather than the whole team, meet to share ideas on a specific topic. Do not restrict this to people who normally work together, experiment with cross-fertilization meetings that bring together people from diverse functions to brainstorm, exchange ideas, address joint problems or brief one another on current events. Make sure there is a clear agenda, keep to the time limit and nominate someone to facilitate. Ideally the facilitator will not be too involved in the task detail so they can pay attention to maintenance and process issues.
The same principle applies to the smallest of all teams, a pair. Encourage short, sharp ten minute meetings between colleagues where they address one specific issue that involves them both. Make sure they have protection from distractions such as unannounced visitors or phone calls and remember that the short time-limit is designed to aid their focus.
The need for effective communication does not exist in isolation from day-to-day work demands, neither should the development of communication skills be isolated from the development of technical skill. More companies are now recognizing the advantages of integrating these "people skills" with technical training to maximize their return on training investment. For example, we have worked with training departments in the automotive industry to combine quality methodologies such as statistical process control (SPC) with communication skills that supported innovation through negotiation and building relationships.
Managers or those responsible for leading meetings need specific skills in facilitation and meeting conduct. All team members need a range of well-developed communication skills that enable them to interact effectively.
A final consideration is that these skills will contribute to greater teamwork, and at the same time they require a certain degree of teamwork to be applied in the first place. One solution is to embed them not only in technical training, but also to include them in team development programmes where team members have the opportunity to meet off-site in order to improve their relationships and consider the issues faced by their team.
Communication in business teams continues to be essential for effective teamwork, technical excellence and customer responsiveness. Technology has increased the speed and ease of much communication, and the reliable stand-by of the team briefing remains a core component. Yet perhaps the most effective ways of improving communication are also the simplest – taking the time to really notice your colleagues, listening to how they speak as well as what they say, and remembering that what happens inside of us, in particular how we feel, will have a profound influence on what we do.
Managers and teams who truly apply these principles know they have got to the heart of communication.
This article was originally published in Management Development Review Volume 9 Number 7.
The author was Christopher Connolly, Director of Sporting Bodymind Ltd, UK a leading team-building and organizational development consultancy. With his business partner John Syer, he is joint author of How Teamwork Works, recently published by McGraw-Hill.