BY MICHAEl RAINE
How effectively do you communicate with your employees? It’s a simple question that often goes unasked. It’s easy, and understandably so, for many store managers and owners to overlook how effective their communication is. At any given time, there are a great number of things that must be tended to and it’s simple for managers and owners to hurriedly send an email or rush through a meeting or conversation with an employee without asking themselves: “Did they understand what I tried to get across?” And yet, few things will affect an employee’s performance and attitude more than the communication they have with their employer.
In many ways, effective employee communication starts well before anything is said or typed. It involves putting some thought into the method of communication, word choice, and who is being communicated to. Here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that what you say now won’t lead to headaches down the road.
Understand The Person’s Personality
This is, without question, the most important aspect of effective communication. The most effective communication, in any situation, is that which takes place between two or more people with complimentary personalities. That’s why this step starts before you even hire someone.
“You want to know what you’re getting into and if it’s a good match for your leadership style,” notes Colleen Billings, HR Director at CPM Healthgrades and former Business Manager at Steinway Piano Gallery of Naples, who gave a NAMM University presentation on employee communication at the January 2013 show. “[Your candidate could] be terrific, but if you’re a tyrant and this person needs all kinds of hand-holding and needs to have their message packed with bows and bunnies all the time, it’s not going to work.”
“In retail, the most effective sales guys know how to talk at different levels,” adds Peter Tong, Owner of Mojo Music in Oakville, ON. “With a staff, it’s the same thing. If you want something done or somebody to be on your side, you have to somehow be on their level, so you have to figure out their personalities.”
Billings advises owners and managers to be cognizant of this during the hiring process. Ask interviewees how they best receive directions and constructive criticism. If you prefer a direct, to-the-point style of communication, then a sensitive employee will likely not work out in the long term, no matter how qualified they are for the job.
Assessing personalities and adjusting communication accordingly does not end with a hiring. “Your perception of your employees is constantly changing, even without your own correspondence with them – just by seeing how they act, how they behave, how they communicate with others,” explains Dave Simpson, Manager of Guitarworks’ flagship location on Macleod Trail South in Calgary, AB. “I am constantly picking up things that I put in my mental bank that may even slightly alter how I feel I need to address or speak with those people in the future.”
Simpson adds that this isn’t only relevant for communicating directions, corrections, or constructive criticism, but is equally important when commending someone. “You want them to feel good about it and you want to encourage that going forward, so you need to maximize how you’re delivering that message.”
Choose The Proper Method Of Communication
In the modern workplace, there is a seemingly unlimited number of ways to communicate. In many circumstances, one-on-one conversation is ideal and reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding. But even in a small store, it is unrealistic to expect one-on-one communication to be an option in every case. Alternatively, there are staff and department meetings, emails, phone calls, wall or web bulletins, company wiki pages, text messages, and others. The most effective method needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“A lot of communication happens in the weird ad-hoc way,” says Billings, adding that a little thought and planning can go a long way. As she notes, the thought process should be, “I’ve made this decision. Who needs to know about that in order for this to be successful and what are the best methods for me to do that?”
Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all approach. All stores must, often through trial and error, figure out which methods work best in a given situation. Billings, Tong, and Simpson all agree that email tends to work best when imparting information that needs to be known store or department wide. Billings adds that email is also useful when you need to document a conversation or in situations where it is useful for employees to have the information, such as directions, onhand to reference later.
It is also a good idea, Billings says, to follow up important emails with meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page.
And that’s arguably the key point: Have a consistent message and ensure everyone is on the same page.
There are many reasons people make mistakes, but one common reason is they don’t have a clear understanding, whether they know it or not, of what they are supposed to do.
“You may tell the office manager one thing and might tell a sales person a different thing and you might tell a service person a different side of the same story. It either dilutes the message or confuses the message when those individuals then get together,” says Billings. When an owner/ manager unintentionally relays slightly differing versions of the same message, they lose control of the message.
“In the absence of information, people will make stuff up. So if you don’t tell them how to think about it or how you think about it as an owner or how you want them to think about it on your behalf – because they’re all agents of your organization – they’ll fill in the gaps,” explains Billings. “They won’t always do it in a negative way, they’ll fill the gaps in a way that’s to their benefit, but sometimes they’ll do it because they think they know but it isn’t the way that you intended as an owner.”
One way to avoid this and save time, as Simpson explains from experience, is to send a mass email explaining what is needed. The owner/manager then follows up with a staff/department meeting or individual conversations to ask and answer questions and ensure everyone understands the original message. “For me, it turns what would need to be 12 15-minute conversations into 12 30-second conversations,” he adds.
“You’ve got to be really clear with them and make sure you’re getting acknowledgment that they understand what you’re telling them,” Tong offers. “Telling people is one thing; having them listening and saying, ‘I understand and I’ll do it’, is another thing.”
Be Fair & Be Seen As Fair
It should go without saying that being fair in your interactions with employees is important and playing favourites is detrimental to a healthy and productive work environment. What is often forgotten is that the perception of fairness is as important as fairness itself. Yes, it’s good to tailor an approach to a person’s personality, but the message and level of respect should be the same for all.
“You have to show them equal respect,” says Tong, adding if one person’s mistake gets swept under the rug while another is reprimanded in front of their co-workers, people will take notice and mistrust and communication breakdowns will likely follow.
Listen & Ask Questions
“It sounds funny because when people think of communication they think about talking or writing, but the first [tip] really is listening,” says Billings. “Making sure you’re listening to what your employees are saying. What are their frustrations? What are their barriers?”
As Billings explains and the previous point exemplifies, communication is about more than words; it is also about actions. As well, two-way communication always produces better results than one-way conversations. Asking questions, truly listening to employees’ responses, and showing that thought and consideration has been put into those responses will foster an environment of open communication.
It’s Not Complicated
Effective employee communication isn’t a complicated matter. All it requires is a little forethought and planning. Ensure the style of communication suits the individuals to whom it’s directed, the method makes sense for the situation, everyone is receiving the same message, and everyone is being respected .