It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at the headlines to ascertain that we are living in uncertain times. Given the polarized nature of the country in which we live, study, and do business, even the most seemingly benign topics of conversation can engender controversy and resentment. As such, the task of building and maintaining positive workplace culture—and closing the door on the rancor that too often characterizes the world outside the office parking lot--can seem daunting, to say the least. Consider a conversation I had just last week with one of my employees:
Mary: “I’d like to file a complaint. My supervisor gave me a complex assignment even though she knew I had already been asked to help with another project. I’m under a lot of pressure to get everything done and I want to do a good job… But I can’t help but feel like there’s a target on my back!”
Me: “Thanks for coming to me. Have you tried to discuss your concern with your supervisor?”
As a human resources manager, I have had more conversations than I can remember that offer some variation or another on the same theme as the one above. My conversation with Mary reads as a somewhat docile interaction, and it was. But any manager whose employees register complaints like Mary’s should take notice, because the apparent lack of trust between Mary and her direct supervisor is a warning sign. When an organization has in its employ too many Mary’s, so to speak, it’s on a fast track to high turnover, with all the increased costs and decreased productivity associated with organizational instability. So, what is an executive to do when faced with discontent within the ranks? While the perils of low morale are significant, the solution doesn’t necessarily entail costly management training programs or mediation sessions; instead, consider reevaluating internal communication.
Perhaps because most highly qualified managers acquire so many skills through formal education or on-the-job training, the importance of communication—a skill that even the chief executive has possessed since early childhood, after all—is sometimes taken for granted. Yet, the admittedly nonscientific empirical data I’ve collected over the years I’ve worked in human resources would indicate that a great deal of workplace dissatisfaction is rooted in communication malpractice. Below I’ve listed three totally reasonable things we could all do better in an effort to build trust and commitment in the workplace:
1) Explain the why’s: This one’s important, because, look, it doesn’t matter that you’re the boss or the president or the supreme leader—the gravitas of your position is never going to be enough on its own when it comes to building a successful, collaborative, and innovative team. When you give a subordinate feedback, a complex assignment, or new direction, take the time to tell them why. For one thing, you’ll probably get a more positive response. For another, providing context and explaining the importance of your employee’s work will give them a sense of purpose within the organization.
2) Listen more than you speak: This one’s hard for me, too. Listening is every bit as vital as speaking where effective communication is concerned. If all the Mary’s in your organization felt comfortable sharing their concerns with their supervisors—better yet, if they were asked—they would feel better appreciated and their supervisors might glean valuable information to remove roadblocks in the way of organizational success.
3) Assume nothing: When I spoke with Mary, she assumed that her supervisor was familiar with her workload, the obstacles with which she had to contend, and was simply trying to make her look bad to upper management. When I spoke with Mary’s supervisor, he had assumed that Mary felt comfortable with her workload, and that she would have said something if that wasn’t the case. I say it to myself all the time: even when you think you are over-communicating, you’re more than likely not.
The Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue added innumerable resources to my managerial toolkit. Learn more at http://online.purdue.edu/comm/masters-in-communication
About the Author
Although I was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, far from West Lafayette and smack in the middle of the legendary Duke-UNC-North Carolina State rivalry, my extended family (chock-full of Purdue grads) managed to inculcate in me the Boilermaker tradition nonetheless. Some of my fondest memories are of summers spent on the family farm just outside Lafayette, shucking corn and picking raspberries. I loved going ‘into town’, too, and the anticipation of such adventures only added to Purdue’s allure. I graduated with my BA from North Carolina State University, and was thrilled to begin my graduate studies at Purdue two years later. Following another couple years of hard, gratifying work, I can finally call myself Purdue alum! I can attest to the value Purdue has added to both my resume and the caliber of my work. Furthermore, as a human resources professional, I assure you that neither the value of the Purdue brand name nor the potential value-add of a solid, effective communicator is lost on professional recruiters. I’m looking forward to sharing my Purdue experiences with a broader audience! Boiler up!
*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.