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Maintaining Morale through Effective Communication with Employees

Two cans with string between them illustrating effective communication

Communication is a two-way street – and that doesn’t mean that one person talks and the other talks back. In fact, we’ve all experienced “communication” from people who clearly don’t care for that last part. But the truth is that communication simply requires a sender, a receiver, and in between them, a channel or medium. “Communication” only occurs if the receiver understands the message once it’s passed through the medium – and that’s exactly why communication is a two-way street. It’s not necessarily the receiver’s fault for not understanding the sender’s message; it could be that the sender’s message wasn’t particularly understandable in the first place. Effective communication relies on the sender-medium-receiver equation regardless of whether the medium is air carrying vibrations to the receiver’s ear or cyberspace carrying digital information to someone’s inbox.

Regardless of audience, message, or medium, the following are what we’re calling the eternal tenets of effective communication:

  • Be clear
  • Be concise
  • Use the appropriate tone

At work, communication happens in three main ways: in person, over the phone, and via email. Knowing how effective communication can be achieved in each of these contexts is crucial to managers and subordinates alike. However, it’s managers who are more often tasked with communicating sometimes sensitive information both to individuals and large groups. They’re also tasked with ensuring that such communication is effective, after all effective communication is crucial to employee engagement, morale, and performance; it helps them feel like part of a team and aids them in their decision-making on the job. Therefore, managers must first choose the appropriate channel depending on the message they’re sending, and then figure out the best way to be clear, concise, and convey the proper tone based on the media.

Effective communication in person with employees

Managers will talk to their employees one-on-one, one-on-few, and one-on-many. The following are some tips on how to achieve effective communication either one-on-one or when addressing a group of employees.

Whether the purpose is to communicate a warning or just to catch-up on a certain project, there are some basic one-on-one conversation tips every manager should follow in addition to the overarching, eternal tenets of effective communication:

  • Don’t get personal

    Whether you like the employee you’re speaking to or have mixed feelings, it’s important to keep the conversation professional, and that means focusing on the employee’s work rather than any personality faults/assets you perceive. This doesn’t mean that you can’t thank them for their efforts or address unacceptable behaviour (especially if that’s the reason for the conversation), but it’s always best to keep matters within the context of the workplace.

  • Respect privacy

    Remember, it’s a one-on-one conversation, so make sure – whether you are addressing a sensitive/delicate issue or providing praise – that you keep the discussion private. You wouldn’t want to embarrass your employee in front of the team. Likewise, overtly praising an individual in front of everyone else may undermine morale, even if your intentions were the opposite.

  • Ditch the distractions

    Focus your attention on the employee in question. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, ignore the buzzing of your smartphone. Show your employee that they have your undivided attention, especially if you’re the one who initiated the meeting.

Some managers – unless they suffer from stage fright – actually fret one-on-one conversations more than they do group presentations possibly because addressing a group allows the manager to feel in control of the content, staying as high-level as possible. However, addressing a group of employees in person presents its own complexities that can act as barriers to effective communication. The following are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Structure your speech

    Just as you would a written document or business presentation, you need to organize your thoughts in advance, ensuring the main message is front-and-centre and not cluttered by unnecessary information. This kind of structuring also helps ensure you don’t go over on timing – which is when you’ll definitely lose people’s attention.

  • Provide enough background

    Depending on the size of your team, not everyone will necessarily know why your communication is important. Toward the beginning, be sure to provide enough context for everyone in the audience.

  • Leave time for questions and answer them

    Regardless of the topic, your employees will likely have questions while others are hoping someone will think of something they haven’t. Leave time to take these questions and answer them to the best of your knowledge. Avoiding questions or neglecting them altogether is not good for morale.

  • Exude confidence

    Good news, bad news, or neutral news, addressing a group should always be done confidently. To exude confidence, enunciate during your delivery, vary your tone by emphasizing  key points, avoid “umming” and “ahhing”, watch your body language (crossed arms, for instance, convey discomfort and defensiveness, so take a stance that conveys openness by moving your arms and showing your hands), and periodically make eye contact with each individual in the group. This is an excellent way to maintain their engagement and attention.

Effective communication over the phone with employees

If you’re talking with an individual or a group, some of the same tips above will apply over the phone, such as enunciating and avoiding distractions. However, phone conversations, especially with employees, do require a certain level of tact. While not as estranging as email (see below), phone conversations can still make it difficult to gauge people’s moods, and it’s all too easy to accidentally interrupt people because of the lack of facial expressions and body language. Such instances can lead to misinterpretations, especially with subordinates who may over analyze the situation if they’re anxious. The following are some helpful tips to ensure effective communication over the phone with employees:

  • Smile

    This tip is a classic. Smiles can actually be heard over the phone, which is why, even if the situation you’re discussing wouldn’t warrant a smile face-to-face, it may still be a good idea to smile while you’re on the phone in order to put the other person at ease and avoid giving an inaccurate – and possibly dismal – impression of yourself.

  • Acknowledge awkward silences

    If you have to pause to take notes or deal with something urgent, that’s fine, but be courteous to the employee(s) on the other end of the line and say what it is you’re doing so that they don’t interpret the dead air as distraction or indifference.

  • Let others speak

    Since you’re not able to see anyone you’re talking to, it can be all too easy to make yourself the only voice that’s heard. Remember that those on the other end want to talk too, but have no physical way of letting you know that. Pause now and then to see who chimes in and go so far as to ask what they’d like to say.

Effective communication over email with employees

Perhaps the most important rule about emailing employees is to carefully decide whether email is actually the most effective channel to use. As discussed in our article on email etiquette, email is the most abused form of communication in the workplace, partly because it’s so impersonal. But impersonal is not how employers want to appear. Remember the eternal tenets of effective communication: be clear; be concise; use the appropriate tone. These are all harder to do via email. If you feel email is the appropriate channel to convey a message to your employees – meaning it’s not sensitive or confidential – do the following:

  • Make subject lines obvious

    One’s inbox should not be a series of mysteries and cliffhangers. Make the topic obvious in your subject line.

  • Use pleasantries to control tone

    You’ll put a lot of minds at ease and keep a lot of productive people performing if you say “please” and “thank you”. It’s that simple.

  • Keep it simple

    No email should be as difficult as Moby Dick. You’re no Herman Melville, so keep it short, but explanatory.

  • Proofread

    If you don’t know what you said, no one else will. Read over your emails, and make sure you’ve used proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

  • Reach out and touch someone

    Oddly enough, the final tip regarding effective communication over email is to second-guess using email. Email often quickly devolves into a mess of confusing threads and unnecessary CCs. If you find that happening, don’t be shy. Walk over and talk to someone, or pick up the phone. They won’t bite. Promise.

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