“Whatever happened to the lost art of conversation?” Right? It used to be a dance. It could be a business meeting, which was a bit like a courtly bassadanza. A raucous dinner party resembled something of a disco, and your impromptu luncheon among old friends a pleasant square dance. A sales call could be more of a Waltz, maybe. Workplace communication has never had a reputation for expression and creativity. It’s a one-way ballet, where the dance master dictates all of the movement. Whatever happened to the lost art of conversation? It entered the American office and never escaped with its life.
We get it. Work is work. Business is business. Not everyone can be salsa dancing all day. But we can do better. We can kick old habits that our offices have developed over decades of miscommunication, and over decades of age differences as well. If you want to communicate effectively with your employees, you have to be direct, get on their level, and open yourself up to them professionally.
Emails are not the End-all, Be-all
We might as well have started this article with “Whatever happened to the lost art of the phone call.” As an office of mixed generations, our experience with technology ranges from cutting edge software and the latest iPhones to laser discs and phonographs. We’ve seen it all, and we’ve followed the changes, but we still love chatting on the phone. Email, Slack, Skype, these are excellent ways to spread information in the office. They also lack personability. Millennials aren’t killing the classic phone call. Laziness is.
Remember the old noir films, where getting to a phone line was integral to the plot? We’re more connected than ever now, and our phone lines are connected to our hips! Don’t just text or message your employees – call them! Even if you work in the same building. Phone calls often get you a faster answer, even if that answer is “I’m not there to pick up your call.” I get it. You don’t like confrontation. You’re better with your words when you can write them down. You’ve got a cold. Fine, make excuses. But phone calls will help open up lines of communication in your office and normalize regular conversation over projects. And if you’re in the same building as your staff and comfortable calling them, the obvious next step is to drop in for a visit. Speak in-person. Candid conversation will make everyone more comfortable working together.
Make Data accessible
We just finished talking about using your voices to communicate, and now we’re going to focus on written information. We promise we’re not being hypocritical! A well-oiled office writes stuff down. All of those documents have to go somewhere – a place your employees can access them, a place that’s secure. There’s software for data like that. Software that can manage it so that your whole team can get a hold of it. These programs are called “Enterprise Content Management,” or more recently “Content Services.” The best Content Services are versatile and open-ended, with a robust feature set. They allow your administrative team to create workflows, giving files a path on which team members can submit, edit, take notes on, or approve them.
Companies will use Skype for Business or WhatsApp to connect their employees, but without a way to share and process documents together, huge chunks of the conversation are missing from the record. Content Services like Contentverse provide an audit trail for all documents, ensuring that you can track the what, who, where, and when at every stage of a file’s life cycle. With options for hosting at your location or in the cloud, using the web portal or the mobile app, and launching in environments with different types of user licenses and workstations, an ECM like this keeps communication open despite the traditional wrench in your workflow.
Conversations include listening
As much as we love to hear ourselves talk, listening to our employees and colleagues is just as productive. This is what we were discussing earlier – the single conductor telling all the musicians how to play or all the dancers how to dance. Well, it may be that a manager is orchestrating the operation, but without the employees, there would be no operation. You need to listen to what your team members say. Read through their reports in-depth and make sure you understand them before responding. You need to ask questions, listen to the answers, and then come up with an informed game plan.
Every manager, owner, director, or executive likes to think that they have all the answers and all of the best ideas. That’s simply never been the case. A company is made up of people. If you didn’t need other folks in other departments handling things, then you would be running the whole organization on your own. When your employees report to you, don’t interrupt them. Wait for them to complete their thoughts or finish reading aloud. Don’t respond immediately. Digest what they’ve told you. Make sure that you have understood all of it. How does it apply to your current model or project plan? Does it conflict with your line of thinking? Perhaps it is the correct option where your idea is in fact wrong. Once you’ve allowed their thoughts to have a pregnant pause of contemplation, answer slowly and effectively. Be careful with your response. Be deliberate. Only by listening properly can you speak intelligently.
Straight to the facts
The biggest culprit for a delayed or derailed project is miscommunication. Most of that miscommunication comes from the top down. A director or manager gave an assignment, but they were vague or inconsistent about the goal. What information do you want this project to reveal? What ends should this project achieve? If that key information is not clear from your memo, you have already failed to be a precise and direct leader.
You might be saying now, “But I don’t want to micromanage my workers.” That is a fair point. You shouldn’t feel the need to lead every step of every task your employees are given. That would defeat the purpose of a hierarchy of responsibility. However, your position is one of direction. You need to specifically lay out what you need from your employees. You must be clear. You must be thorough. And you must be available for questions (remember what we said about listening). None of these qualities demand micromanagement. And mastering them will ensure that a team member with a good head on their shoulders can take your prompt and run with it. A management professional who lacks these qualities is the one who will find themselves micromanaging more often than not.
Give Feedback, not just a Yes or No
For the sake of clarity and listening, there’s something to be said of brevity. The simplest and most straightforward responses often serve better than a lengthy treatise in the office. However, brevity should never cause us to sacrifice efficiency. It is inefficient to send back work with an unexplained “yes” or “no.” Every project manager should aspire to be a wellspring of bountiful feedback.
Of course, that’s hardly achievable along with everything else on our plates. If you don’t have time to give a longer response, at least say in a sentence or two why a result doesn’t work for you, or what in this successful project you would like to see more of. Without guiding feedback, employees have no idea what they’re doing right and wrong. They will keep creating shots in the dark until one blindly strikes the target. Don’t be a closed book. Open your door. Answer questions. Let your employees know why you’ve said yes or no.
And don’t just give feedback. You have to become good at receiving it regularly as well. Don’t let this analogy go to your head, but pretend you are the president: he or she makes decisions based on the expertise of their cabinet, because no one person can know everything about all spheres of knowledge. Your team is full of good ideas. When you tell them your project plan, expect responses from them. Expect pushback. And process it. Analyze it. Respond to it.
Give your employees a civil, level response. As a leader, even in an office setting, you have to develop thick skin. Not everything you throw at the wall will stick. Get used to it. And get used to the back and forth of workplace conversation. Because it’s an artform worth preserving, worth harnessing, and worth using every day. The better you communicate with your team, the better you will communicate with everyone else.