Cool Hand Luke has always been one of my favorite movies. And one of my favorite lines is, “What we got here is a failure to communicate”. Now certainly the movie took that failure to an extreme –with long-term disastrous results for Paul Newman’s character. What we want to avoid is having the same failure to communicate become problematic in the business environment.
Recently a client called me to discuss a problem that had occurred in their office. Simply stated, a lack of communication led to a very frustrating experience. As we reviewed what had occurred, what could have been done to prevent it, and how to handle these situations going forward, it became more and more clear that most managers are never taught foundational communication skills to help them effectively supervise their employees. Without effective communication tools and techniques, the simplest tasks (and subsequent misunderstandings) will fester in the petri dish of a bad work environment, leading to interpersonal conflict including employee-employer resentments.
Here’s the scenario: The office printer was displaying an error message. (Sounds simple enough, right?)
In an effective working environment, the resolution to this should be very simple. When the office manager notices the error message, she attempts to address the issue herself. If she is unable to resolve it, she calls the printer repair service to schedule the repair and updates the manager to let him know that she is handling the situation. She then ensures that the repair is done satisfactorily and the office goes on functioning as if nothing had happened.
That’s not what occurred at my client’s office…
The office printer was displaying an error message. Both the boss and the office manager noticed the error message. The office manager put a task on her “to do” list to call the printer repair service after trying to resolve the situation herself. The printer was still working while it displayed the error, so she determined that it was not an immediate priority. The boss mentioned the error message to the office manager without any specific request or instruction.
The next day, the boss was annoyed that the office manager had not called the repair service and called to schedule the repairs himself. When the repairman arrived, the office manager greeted him and showed him the printer and the error message. She gave the company check book to the boss (who sits immediately adjacent to the printer), and returned to her desk. The boss then followed the office manager, gave her back the checkbook and told her to watch the repairman so that she can learn how to fix it next time. The boss is unhappy with the employee and the employee is unhappy with the boss.
What happened to make such a simple task into a point of contention between two professionals? It’s a foundational lack of communication. Each assumed that the other knew what was expected of them.
So what could have been done differently? First, the responsibility for establishing communication standards is the responsibility of the boss. That is not to say that the employee is absolved of responsibility in communicating but the culture of open communications must be created by the management.
In this situation, the boss clearly had different expectations of what needed to be done to fix the printer as well as when it needed to be done. By saying only, “There is an error message on the printer”, those expectations were not communicated. The office manager had no way of knowing that the expectation was to get it repaired today. A better approach would have been for the boss to say, “I’ve noticed that there is an error message on the printer. When we’ve had that message before, it normally means that it’s only a day until it stops working altogether. Will you be able to call the printer repair service today to get them in as soon as possible to take a look at it?” And then wait for a response from the office manager. Only by engaging in a dialogue will the boss be aware of any challenges or objections that the office manager has in completing the requested activity. The office manager could have already called and could say, “Actually, I already called them and they are scheduled to be here tomorrow between 9 and 11”. Or “I’m in the middle of completing the budget spreadsheets you requested but I will call for the printer repair as soon as it’s done”. At this point, the boss has effectively transferred the responsibility for the printer repair to the employee. He initially failed at transferring any responsibility when he said, “There’s an error message on the printer”.
Unless expectations are expressed directly, there is no way for either the boss or the office manager to know what is expected of them or what has already been done to meet those expectations. The lack of expressed expectations leads to a lack of understanding that most often manifests itself in the boss saying to himself, “How could she not know that….?” And the employee likewise thinking, “How was I supposed to know that…?” If in your role as either a boss or an employee, either of these phrases have ever crossed your mind then a lack of clearly communicated expectations is the problem.
So what do you do to create a culture of communicating expectations? As with most worthwhile endeavors, it will take practice. At first it may feel awkward and you may feel like you are over-communicating but in time you will get into a natural rhythm and it will feel more and more comfortable.
Here are a few guidelines:
Don’t assume. You’ve probably heard the old phrase, “When you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me””. Like most old sayings there is a lot of truth here. By assuming that the other person knows what you want, what you are thinking or when you want it, you have a high risk of being disappointed. Chances are that the other person doesn’t have psychic abilities and has little idea about what you actually want done.
Be specific. When make a request of someone, convey to them what you want done, when you want it done, and who you expect to do it. If you expect them to do the work themselves, say so. If you expect them to call in help, say so. If you want it done before 3:00 on Friday, say so!
Explain why. The most powerful motivator for most employees is when they understand why they have been asked to do something rather than just being told to do it. When employees truly understand the “why,” they gain a better understanding and become a contributor to solving problems. In the situation discussed above, the office manager is more likely to take responsibility (and be empowered) to resolve the problem themselves when they understand that that specific error message is typically a 24 hour countdown to a printing moratorium.
Be respectful. I strongly encourage you to practice by asking questions rather than giving direct orders. It does not create a collaborative work environment when there is telling instead of asking. You need to check that you are being reasonable in your request and that they have the opportunity to indicate that they will (or will not) be able to get it done. Before telling your employees what you want them to do, take a few moments and think about the best way to ask them. This does not in any way diminish your authority. To the contrary, your authority is enhanced by making your employee feel like a powerful member of the team, whose contributions and perspectives are important.
Communication is a two-way street. It takes two people to communicate (unless you want to be the crazy bird lady in the park). The employee may find themselves in a situation where the boss lacks the communication skills mentioned above and that can lead to frustration. In this scenario, the employee has two options. One is to decide that you don’t like your job, don’t like your boss, don’t like the work that you are doing, don’t want to put the effort in to improving your own situation, and therefore decide to quit. The second option is to decide that you generally like your job (and are grateful to have one) and are willing to do what you can to improve the situation.
If, as an employee, you are still reading, I will assume (risky, I know) that you have opted for the second choice which is to put in the effort to improve your own work environment. Congratulations! It is only the people who are willing to stretch themselves (and choose not to be victims of their environment) that will succeed in business!
The only way to improve your boss’ communication skills is by communicating with him or her. Here are a few guidelines:
Be proactive. When you see something that needs attention, do something about it. Don’t wait for it to be a crisis or wait for someone else to tell you to do it. Do it because you noticed it needed to be done.
Communicate your plan. When you are being proactive, let your boss know. Simply by saying, “John, I noticed that the printer has an error message. I tried to fix it but it looks like it needs the repair man. I wanted to let you know that I was going to give him a call to get it repaired. OK?” This accomplishes two things: it lets your boss know that you have it under control and also gives him the opportunity to express any concerns or objections that he may have.
Be respectful. There is a reason that the boss is the boss. When you are communicating with them, don’t try to show them up, be sarcastic, “suck up”, or brag. None of these behaviors are appealing (do you like it when others demonstrate these behaviors to you?). Share the information so that your boss can be well-informed about what you are doing and WHY you are doing it.
The hardest thing about communicating with someone is your tone of voice. It’s not what you say but how you say it. I was always told that if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all. For both managers and employees, tone of voice can be used as a weapon. Don’t ever sink to that level. If you practice the perfect words to say but deliver them with a tone indicating a level of disdain, you have failed.
Effective office communications are crucial to the success of any business. Think about what you want to say and think about the best way to say it to accomplish your goal.
The office printer repair wasn’t the problem; it was not having the skills to effectively communicate requirements about the simplest of tasks. If these simple tasks can’t be communicated effectively within your office, how can you expect to effectively communicate your business strategies?
Good communication skills take practice. I’d be glad to help you improve those skills for you as an individual or for your whole team.