Failure to foster such dialogue, experts say, can have dire consequences. These could include sagging employee morale, mediocre performance and high attrition rates.
All this, in turn, negatively affects corporate productivity and profits.
ITBusiness.ca spoke to four experts to get their insights on how business leaders and managers can promote healthy communication in their companies – in a way that reassures employees and lifts morale. Here’s what they had to say.
Have a strategy
For starters, a firm should have a communications strategy, said Cathy Hammer, principal at 4Views, a leadership and organizational effectiveness consultancy in San Francisco.
This policy should outline who each employee needs to speak to when he or she has a concern about the company or their own performance.
The guidelines, she said, should be written down so new employees know who to talk to, as well as how each staff member would like to be contacted – via e-mail, phone or instant messaging.
Improved communication, Hammer said, should start from the top, at the CEO level. CEOs, typically, are visionaries but often fail to communicate their ideas to fellow employees.
Managers often have communications problems, Hammer noted, as they are usually promoted based on their technical rather than people skills.
She said this is especially true in the area of information technology (IT), which often attracts people less comfortable with communication. “So if a communications strategy is not ingrained in the culture of the business, it’s less likely to happen.”
Through ongoing and open dialogue with reports, managers get to know strengths and weaknesses of each person. Besides everything else, this knowledge helps them delegate tasks more effectively, Hammer said.
Socializing on Second Life
There are many easy ways to informally open lines of communication, she noted.
Hammer related how a company she worked with was having difficulty organizing an after-work social, so instead it decided to buy a Second Life island. The firm found many more staff members were willing to mingle on Second Life than go out for a beer or pizza after work.
It helps when dialogue between managers and staff is broad-based and varied, another leadership coach suggests.
It should include requests for new ideas, gratitude for a job well done, and even appreciation shown in a variety of ways, said Leona Hamel, communication skills consultant at Stage Coach Consulting, a coaching and editing services firm in Granby, Quebec.
People need to recognized, and this is especially true in challenging times, Hamel said. She recommends showing appreciation in tangible ways. “Highlight accomplishments in the company newsletter, send gifts or tokens, or try giving hours off.”
Another expert echoes this view.
A rule-of-thumb principle is to provide a five-to-one ratio of good to bad news, said Nancy MacKay, president of Vancouver-based MacKay and Associates that provides executive leadership coaching.
“The main mistake companies make is giving too much negative feedback.”
No substitute for face-to-face
For IT groups, she recommends at least 30 minutes a week of face-to-face contact with the CIO.
This, she said, will help employees bring issues and challenges before the CIO, and get them resolved in a timely way.
Some experts say managers should not shy away from over-communicating in a downturn.
At the same time care must be exercised in how messages are shared staff, cautioned Stacey Hanke, author of Yes You Can! Everything You Need from A to Z to Influence Others to Take Action.
Many managers simply lack communication skills and tend to get the wrong messages across, she said.
Face-to-face communications, Hanke said, is becoming a lost art and is being replaced with e-mail, texting and voicemail.
She emphasizes the vital importance of body language and tone for building trust and relationship.
An audience takes only seven seconds to make a judgment about you so posture and body language go a long way, said Hanke.
When communicating, factors such as intonation and volume are important. She cautions against use of “non-words” and fillers such as “umm” and “ahh”, as they decrease credibility and trust. Leaders, she said, should also know when to pause for dramatic impact and when to stop talking.
Connecting with the audience is the biggest challenge many leaders have when speaking to a large group, Hanke said.
So she recommends that – during a talk or discussion – the speaker look directly at each person for one whole thought, before moving on to the next person.
This is better than scanning the entire room when speaking. Such a series of mini dialogues helps each participant feel more engaged and improves chances of them paying attention and ignoring the BlackBerry.
Using the right channel
She recognizes that every manager has his or her own style. “Enhance what works best for you.”
Likewise, she said the communication channel you use should be suited to what you hope to achieve. If you want to build a relationship, face to face is the most effective method. If you want to reach out quickly to an employee – try an e-mail.
The telephone can be used sometimes in lieu of face-to-face, especially if the person you need to speak to isn’t at the same location.
But when discussing sensitive matters, business leaders need to work harder when talking on the phone, as they don’t have body language and eye contact to help them along the way, said Hanke.