As a business owner or manager, chances are when you look at your daily or weekly list of things to do, “improve interpersonal and team communication skills” is not top of the list. Between bidding new jobs, keeping existing customers happy, scheduling crews around next week’s weather and oh yeah, arm wrestling with the bank for more capital to grow your business, who’s got time for interpersonal communication?
But in a highly competitive market, it can benefit you to make time to focus on what is arguably one of the most important and most overlooked aspects of your business. In fact, some experts believe improving team communication can be a major differentiator in a company’s ability to remain competitive.
When communication on your team is vague or worse, if it breaks down entirely due to disagreements or interpersonal differences, it can lead to wasted time, re-work, poor job quality and just plain bad morale. When communication is clear, everyone understands what needs to be done, work flows smoothly, job quality remains high and everyone is happy, including the customer.
So, if team communication is so important, why don’t more business leaders make time to focus on it? The answers are many and varied: “I don’t have time.” “It will cost too much to pull a team in from the field to train them in soft skills.” “I don’t like talking in front of a group.” And the classic: “How hard could it be? You tell them what you want, and they either do it or they get fired.”
While becoming an expert communicator can take some training and a lifetime of practice, there are a few simple things you can do to improve the way you communicate with your teams right now.
1. Become a good listener. Learning how to listen not only makes you a more effective communicator, it also inspires loyalty in those you lead. Why? According to author Susan Scott, “There is a profound difference between having a title and being someone people commit to at the deepest level. If we wish to accomplish great things in our organizations then we must come to terms with a basic human need: We must recognize that people share a universal longing to be known.”
That basic need to be recognized as having valuable ideas to contribute is a major factor in whether your team is motivated and engaged, or just clocking in and out for a check at the end of the week. Here are a few techniques to help you improve your listening skills.
• Be attentive and keep an open mind. The old saying goes, “If you’re not willing to be changed by what you hear, you’re not really listening.” In other words, listen attentively and with an open mind. This means maintaining eye contact and resisting distractions like ringing phones and text messages. Really take the time to hear what the speaker is saying, and avoid formulating your answer before they even finish their sentence. Try to stay focused on content, not delivery style. Many people are not comfortable speaking up or speaking out, they may talk in half sentences or avoid the real issue. It’s your job to listen between the lines to find out what they are really trying to say.
• Echo back what you heard. To be sure you got their meaning (not just their words), get in the habit of repeating back what you heard. “So, John, if I heard you correctly, you think it would be better to mow that back field with a walk-behind instead of a rider?” This gives John an opportunity to confirm what he actually meant to say, and to elaborate on the reasons behind his comment. In repeating back what you heard, you are not only confirming that you understand the speaker, but you are also validating his thoughts and opinions.
• Validate feelings. Recognize also that you are communicating with another human being who has emotions, so it’s helpful to validate their feelings around a particular issue. “John, I understand it’s frustrating for you to finish mowing around the trees with the walk-behind and then have to wait for the rider to finish on the back.”
• Keep the conversation open. Asking open-ended questions can help to create a true dialogue and let the other person know you are really interested in solving the problem. They require the responder to contribute more information or ideas to the resolution of the conversation. Open-ended questions begin with who, what, when, where or how.
For example, “John, what else could you do on the site while you’re waiting for the rider to finish?” “How would you re-organize the crew and equipment mix to account for putting the walk-behind on the back field? What other ideas do you have to help us improve quality?” Even if you ultimately don’t agree with John, he still feels good that you took the time to listen to his opinion and explore the options.
2. Give appropriate and timely feedback. Giving feedback to your team in an appropriate and timely way can be time consuming and sometimes uncomfortable, so it’s easy to avoid. It’s better to give people regular feedback than to de-motivate them by ignoring their accomplishments or worse, surprising them at the end of the year with a pink slip for poor performance.
Read more about it
If you are interested in learning more about improving your communication skills and team dynamics, here are a few resources to get started:
“Fierce Conversations: Navigating Business and Life One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott
In this guide, which includes exercises and tools to take you step by step through the Seven Principles of Fierce Conversations, Scott teaches readers how to: overcome barriers to meaningful communication, expand and enrich conversations with colleagues, friends, and family and increase clarity and improve understanding.
For anyone struggling to manage a workforce with different ways of working, talking, and thinking,
“Generations at Work” both explains the gulf that separates the generations and offers insightful solutions for creating workplace harmony.
Establishing a pattern of regular feedback, through one-on-one meetings, team meetings or even just casual chats in the yard will let your team know they can rely on you to guide their performance and growth as a valuable member of the business.
There are two types of feedback: motivational and corrective. Motivational feedback can spark employees to contribute energy and innovative ideas to help the company succeed. Timely corrective feedback can ensure a team member who is not performing has a chance to either improve or to eventually self-eliminate.
• Timing is everything. How you deliver and time your feedback will ensure your success. With either type of feedback you should deliver it in person, not over the phone and not in a text message. Doing so shows respect and sets the tone that this is important enough for you to give the employee your undivided attention.
If you’re giving motivational feedback, deliver it in public to maximize the warm feelings your team member gets from being recognized for good work. If the feedback is corrective, pull your employee aside and deliver it in private, to minimize embarrassment and maximize the person’s receptivity to the message. To be most effective, deliver motivational feedback separately from corrective feedback.
Picture this: You go up to your foreman at the end of the day and say, “Hey, nice work getting all those flowers installed today, but you left some empty flats behind the building and the client called to say your guys left mulch all over the sidewalk.” What does he go home remembering? Chances are it’s that he messed up.
Motivational feedback recognizes positive behavior and encourages the person to repeat that behavior. Time it just after the person has demonstrated the positive behavior you want to reinforce. “Hey, nice work getting all those flowers installed in one day, I know how hard it was and I appreciate the extra effort.” Now your team member goes home tired, but happy because you took the time to recognize his good work.
Conversely, corrective feedback is aimed at changing a person’s behavior. Deliver the corrective message the next morning, just before the person has an opportunity to repeat the behavior. “John, I know your crew is going to be installing more flowers today. Yesterday, the client mentioned there was some mulch left on the sidewalk. Can I count on you to do a quick double check before you leave the site to make sure you don’t miss any flats and that all the walks are blown clean?”
By waiting to deliver this feedback until John has a chance to repeat the behavior, you are ensuring he is focused on improving his performance.
3. Understand your team’s communication style. Everyone communicates differently. Some are talkers, some speak only when spoken to and others don’t speak at all … because they are so busy texting. Generational and cultural differences also complicate the business of communicating. Recognizing and understanding the styles on your team will enable you to shape and deliver your message to maximize its impact for the individual.
Many unintended conflicts can stem from simple misunderstandings or differences in style. Helping your team recognize and work with different styles among them can foster better team dynamics and a happier workforce. For example, your bookkeeper, Mary, likes to start her day focused on the tasks on her to-do list.
She is driven to execute on each task with a single-minded focus until she achieves excellence. Mary prefers to communicate with you and the team via email, so she doesn’t get distracted with small talk. Javier, your foreman, is a friendly 20-something, who tells great jokes. He likes to start the day over a cup of coffee, checking in with all his people while chatting about the latest news, or weekend plans.
His crew loves him and is always among the top performing teams in your customer surveys. Mary really doesn’t care for Javier; she thinks he wastes a lot of time, and he never answers her emails requesting last week’s time sheets. Javier thinks Mary needs to lighten up a little and have some fun, so he’s always hanging around her desk trying to make her laugh.
If left unresolved, this relationship could easily deteriorate into major conflict on the team. You can avoid that by identifying the differences in style, and coaching the two in how to best work together to accommodate those styles. Mary needs to understand that Javier isn’t a slacker. He’s just motivated by knowing the people around him feel good and are having fun working together. So she might get the paperwork she needs from him if she takes a little time to smile and ask him in person. Javier needs to know that what motivates Mary is getting her work done, so his jokes distract her. What he can do to make her feel good is get her the information she needs, and save the jokes for after work.
Conclusion. Effective communication isn’t rocket science, but it does take a conscious commitment to improve your skills. When your teams understand what is expected of them, feel valued and appreciated as vital to accomplishing your business goals, and come to work motivated to deliver outstanding quality and service, who wouldn’t want to work for you? Who wouldn’t want to do business with you?
The formula is simple: Effective communication leads to a more engaged workforce. A happy workforce is motivated to do quality work, and quality work makes happy loyal customers.
The author spent more than 10 years with Brickman promoting employee engagement, recruiting, training, marketing and social media. She is now an independent communications consultant in Glenwood, Md.
Get more nuts and bolts about being a better communicator by downloading a podcast with Margie Holly on our Lawn Care Radio Network. You can sign up for free by subscribing to our Lawn Care Radio Network at bit.ly/lcrnitunes.