Encouraging Better Communication in Your Small Business


Below is an actual conversation held with a business leader. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Me (answering phone): Hi Dave,

Dave: Hey I was wondering if you knew what Jerry (another leader) had decided to do about Tom (matrix employee who is having disciplinary issues).

Me: No. I haven’t talked to Jerry since we all chatted a few days ago. I thought the two of you were going to discuss and then let me know if I could help.

Dave: I thought so, too, but hadn’t heard from him and thought maybe you had an update.

Me: Have you brought it up to him?

Dave: No.

Me: Isn’t his office right next to yours?

Dave: Yes.

Me: So….maybe you could pop your head in and ask him if he wants to talk about next steps.

Dave: Yeah I guess. Or maybe you could call him and see if he wants us to get together and discuss it again.

Or maybe I want to poke my eyes out because grown men can’t communicate with each other unless I force them to. And it isn’t just grown men, it’s women too, but this example was men so…..

Amazing and frustrating.

I’ve found there are two types of small businesses. Those who over communicate and those who never speak to the person sitting right next to them, there is no middle ground.

In this example, the two men work fine together. They get along. They have several employees who primarily report to one of them, but due to the nature of the business have to have a matrix reporting relationship to the other. This requires them to communicate often and they seem to do so fine for the most part.

Until an employee screws up and they have to discuss next steps together.

I get these calls more than you might think. A couple of times a week I say, “but doesn’t sit right next to you, why don’t you ask them?” only to have them say “oh yeah” like it’s the first time they realized they could do that.

And it’s the thing that makes me way “what the….” the most.

It could be an employee who calls me to ask a question they could have asked their supervisor who they just saw in the hallway or the leader who calls me to ask me about something they could ask the employee they just saw in the break room.

I find myself uttering the phrase “use your words” way more to adults than I ever did to my son.

So how do we encourage better communication? Between leaders? From leaders to employees? From executives to the entire company? From employees upward?

I have a few ideas.

Take Inventory
The first step in deciding if you need to encourage better communication is to take inventory of how you are doing now. Gallup sites employee communication (or lack thereof) as a common complaint of employees so chances are good your business may fall into that. The best way to find out is to ask employees (all employees) a couple of questions.

  • Do we communicate enough?
  • Do you feel you can share your thoughts and ideas even if negative?

That’s it. You do not have to do a full length survey, just the answer to these two questions can let you know if you need to dig deeper or not.

Words Vs Actions
Often the biggest barrier to effective communication is when actions do not align with words. For example, having an open door policy while doors are always closed. Or saying that you encourage constructive employee feedback but getting defensive anytime some is shared. Leaders should review the type of communication they say is important in the workplace and then make sure their actions are in alignment.

Force the Issue
CEO’s who see that their leaders are not properly communicating must do what I did in the earlier conversation. I told Dave that it would be much easier and faster if he walked next door and had the conversation than me calling Jerry and then scheduling time we could all get together. I refused to do it for him. All leaders must demonstrate the behavior and continually encourage it with those around them.

Reward Good Communication
The key to getting any type of behavior to stick is to reward the good. If an employee brings up something that is important even though it may have been difficult for them to do so, praising them in public for bringing it to your attention will reinforce that behavior with others.

It is so important to get this right. Finding the right balance can be difficult, but the better the communication, the more effective the workplace. Often one of the biggest time wasters in a business, is poor communication.

Do you have ideas for encouraging better communication? I’d love to hear them!


Originally published on Acacia HR Solutions blog.



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