April 25, 2011

Communication is like breathing. We do it all the time, so we can easily take it for granted. But managers who want to become great bosses understand that communication isn’t a function — it’s a skill, one you can develop. And just as bad breath can put distance between you and others, so can stinky communication skills.

So today, let me offer three quick tips to instantly improve your communication competence:

1. Review your email strategy.

Note that I’m assuming you HAVE a strategy, which may be a stretch. If not, develop one right now. Start with your own email mission statement, one that understands your organization and your role. Your statement should also take into account the dangers and traps that email presents. Check this past column of mine for the list.

Here’s my email mission statement: “I believe email is an effective tool for exchanging information but inferior to face-to-face  interaction. I will use it for positive purposes like transferring knowledge, updating, connecting and celebrating. I won’t spam people, send incomplete messages that require more correspondence to clear them up, and will not use email as a letter bomb.”

You shouldn’t keep your strategy a secret. If you tell others about it, they will understand the intentions behind your actions. Let’s say your mission statement is “In the interest of time management and efficiency for sender and receivers, my emails will be brief, clear and friendly.” If you share that with colleagues, they will be less apt to perceive your short emails as terse. Sharing it also may encourage your team to develop a similar — or better — strategy for the group.

2. Disengage from digital distractions.

The best communicators aren’t just facile speakers and writers, they’re also known as excellent listeners. I’ve written before that extroverts, who actually think by talking, need to train themselves to put their mouths on “pause” to let others finish their statements. Introverts are at an advantage, because they enjoy taking in information and processing it before discussing it.

But when it comes to being a lousy listener, extroverts and introverts alike can fall prey to one big, bad habit: being lured away by the communications technology that competes with the humans in their presence. And I think we are getting worse at this, rather than better.

I’ve coached countless bosses to take their eyes off their computers screens and keep them on the employee who is there to talk. Whatever headway we’ve made there seems to be undone by our mobile devices. David Carr, of The New York Times, recently wrote a column “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking to You” — and documented the increasing level of interpersonal disengagement he witnessed at a recent convention. He nailed it. Our always-on connections to texts, smart phones or tablets is making us rude.

I leave it to you, your family and friends to negotiate your tolerance levels for digital distraction, but your employees and colleagues deserve your undivided attention — nothing less. If you are expecting an important call, email or text, let others know that, to your regret, you may have to disconnect from them to attend to it. But these should really be exceptional cases. At work, your full focus on others telegraphs (isn’t that a quaint tech word?) your old-fashioned respect.

3. Communicate. Rinse. Repeat.

I wish I knew who coined the axiom: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told them.” I’ve always thought it was good advice, suggesting that while communicators should be creative and engaging, they must be crystal clear.

Now comes new research that says the power of that mantra may actually lie in the sheer act of repetition. A recent Harvard Business School article “It’s Not Nagging, Why Persistent, Redundant Communication Works,” highlights research by Harvard and Northwestern professors who found that: “Managers who are deliberately redundant as communicators move their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.”

They discovered that while clarity may be nice, redundancy — repeat communications, often delivered in a variety of ways, gets better results. They also found that the multiple-message method was most likely to be used successfully by project managers who lacked formal power to order people to do things. Those folks recognized that it was up to them to use communication to foster collaboration.

In a world of information overload, it makes sense. Messages from our immediate bosses tend to get our attention and action first. Messages from team leaders on a cooperative project may go unread for longer amounts of time. So, if you have responsibility without authority, as many people in cross-team projects often do, one of your best techniques is to communicate-rinse-repeat.

It’s not hyperbole when I say these three tips can instantly improve your communication skills, because each of these involves behaviors you can work on right now. They’re not the only tips that can do that, I’m sure. So invite my smart readers out there to add their tips in our comments section. Feel free to be redundant. It’s now chic.

And in today’s podcast, I’ll offer a bonus tip that powers up the three I’ve shared: The communication risk you should dare to take.

You can download the complete series of the What Great Bosses Know podcasts free on iTunes U and watch these related video tutorials.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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